Relatively Literal: Dictionaries Grudgingly Accepting Common Use Of "Literally"

Googling "Literally"

There is a battlefield that is centuries old, on which warriors with lifetimes of experience engage in daily combat. Their weapons range from those developed by the ancient Chinese in the 2nd century BC to technology unleashed only last year, and this battle happens all around us. It is a war with no clear conditions of victory, one which is destined to go on until the end of humanity, which it may very well bring about.

Yes, we're talking about the Grammar War, and there has been a new development.

We're just now getting intelligence from Reddit (yeah, yeah, laugh it up) that Google has recently updated their definition of the word "literally" to include the following:

Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.

That's right, grammar soldiers. The common, exaggerated, and logically incorrect definition of the word "literally" is now being adopted. And Google isn't the only one. The Oxford Dictionary and Merriam-Webster also seem to have signaled defeat in this particularly vicious debate, and accepted that the word now means the opposite of what it actually means. Sorry, Taylor.

I think this brings up an interesting debate, albeit not a new one. Should language be democratically built? Should an incorrect use of a word become a correct version of the word simply due to popularity? Or should we attempt to defend traditional grammar and structure?

If so, is there a more effective method to combat this movement than pedantically pointing out every grammar issue in someone's Facebook status?

While I would welcome hearty debate, be nice in the comments section. I know this can be an inflammable topic. Or is it flammable?

Oh, and here's Chris Traeger.

Nathan Scalia

News by Nathan Scalia

Nathan Scalia earned a BA degree in psychology and considered medical school long enough to realize that he missed reading real books. He then went on to earn a Master's in Library Science and is currently working in a school library. He has written several new articles and columns for LitReactor, served for a time as the site's Community Manager, and can be found in the Writer's Workshop with some frequency.

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Sian Scott's picture
Sian Scott August 13, 2013 - 6:56am

Language is living and because of this, it naturally evolves over time. I think the purists need to deal with their control issues. Isn't this just one more example of luxurous indulgence in 'first-world' problems?

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like August 13, 2013 - 7:45am

It doesn't need to be in the dictionary. It's like adding an entry for every word which may be used sarcastically.



  1. ...
  2. ...
  3. ...
  4. Used to express one's feeling that something or someone is, in one's opinion, not cool."
Matt Bowyer's picture
Matt Bowyer August 13, 2013 - 8:45am

I literally could care less about this story.




See what I did there?

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart August 13, 2013 - 9:09am

Ha! It literally never ends...

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list August 13, 2013 - 11:40am

Well, this makes my classroom poster from The Oatmeal pointless. The joke doesn't work anymore. Now my students will say, "But Ms. B, the dictionary supports my use of the word." If I'm not mistaken, the misuse of "epic" has also been adopted into the dictionary. Our language is a living language, we create new words all the time. I don't mind when we adopt /create new words like blog, vlog, cellphone, e-mail, smog, etc., but I don't like when we accept the incorrect use of words, it devalues their meaning.

Are we going to adopt the new use of the word thirsty too? And what will it mean to be literally thirsty, if we do? Is the person in need of a drink of water, or is the person desparate for sex? Maybe both? Hahaha :)

Rob Blair Young's picture
Rob Blair Young from Utah is reading Driven August 13, 2013 - 2:22pm

I'm all for language evolving in positive ways, but this common usage of "literally" directly disrupts the figurative/literal split and makes both words less functional. To have two directly contradictory meanings of "literally" also adds ambiguity in basically every instance the word is used.

The definition claiming that it's "used to acknowledge that something is not literally true" is also (beyond the problem of defining a term by using that term in the description) a troubled exception because the self-reference relies on only the first definition being accurate. Which will not continue to be an accurate belief if we approve of this second definition.

I see no benefit to this added definition except that it gives people permission to use the term improperly. And I don't mean "improper" here as in "as defined by the dictionary." I mean "improper" as in, it's kind of screwing up the word's function.

hipokrit's picture
hipokrit from Austin, Tx August 13, 2013 - 5:42pm

To Sammy and Robbie's points, I leave you with this, a list of 14 other words that mean their own opposite:


Rob Blair Young's picture
Rob Blair Young from Utah is reading Driven August 13, 2013 - 6:32pm

A cool list, hipokrit, but there is a difference: The context and usage of these terms make those opposing meanings clear (e.g., "Who left" vs "Who is left") while "I'm literally on fire" vs "I'm literally on fire" is substantially less clear.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like August 13, 2013 - 6:45pm

RE: mentalfloss article^

The women may be described as 'left' [oops] only because they were left in the room by someone leaving. It's a passive state which is determined by an exterior action. If they simply went somewhere and then remained, they would not be 'left'. If no one else had been there, they would not be 'left'. The men are not left for having left, they make things left by leaving.

This is mostly unlike the uses of the word 'literally'.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like August 13, 2013 - 6:42pm

I was slow. RB nosed it out.

Pearl Griffin_2's picture
Pearl Griffin_2 from Portland, Oregon is reading Les Miserables August 13, 2013 - 7:48pm

It has to be some combination of the two. Words change meaning all the time, and grammarians, teachers, scholars, can only slow the process through good writing. Look at the word 'nice.' It originally meant 'stupid' or 'foolish' and now it means 'kind' or 'pleasant.' It's process that we should teach, not fear. Personally, I'm much more worried about what our language will come to after years of "totes adorbs" and the like.