Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Definition of the World 'Literally' - Virtual 'Literally' is not Illiteracy, but it is a Casual Misuse of a Word

I don’t know if the title of this post is exceptionally clever, but it is a lot of fun to say out loud. If that title made this sound good enough to read, then, like me, you’re probably someone who has a solid opinion on the proper use of the word ‘literally’. Have you ever corrected anyone who has used the word ‘literally’ to mean figuratively? God, I hope so.
I guess this is my attempt at correcting every misuse of the word ‘literally’. That’s a waste of time, I suppose, but my time is my own to waste. I’ve looked up definitions. I’ve found quotations, some more relevant than others. The first will be a quote from President Dwight David Eisenhower :
“An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.”
I don’t know that I would have considered myself an intellectual, but by Eisenhower’s definition I’m about to become one. I’m taking the time to carry on a one sided semantic debate with myself for the world to read.
What difference does it really make? Who cares if someone wants to use ‘literally’ to mean virtually or figuratively? Granted, it annoys the hell out of me, but not nearly as much as people who talk out loud in movie theaters or drivers who don’t use their turn signals. I have plenty of pet peeves to rattle on about, so why write about this one? It’s because, much to my horror, I recently discovered that I was on the wrong side of the argument.
I hate it when the word ‘literally’ is used to mean figuratively. “You should have seen his performance! He was literally on fire!” No he wasn’t. “We literally inhaled that pizza.” No you didn’t. “The kid is literally a monster!” Well, maybe, that depends on the definition of ‘monster’ more than the definition of ‘literally’.
If I were to correct anyone using any of those mistaken sentences, they could make a great defense by referring me to a dictionary. That’s right. The dictionary agrees that the word ‘literally’ can be used to mean virtually, or it can be used to add emphasis. A dictionary on my desk right now says so. It’s a Merriam-Webster dictionary from 1991. So not only has the dictionary defined ‘literally’ to mean virtually, that happened a long time ago. Literally. Just how long ago was the definition of ‘literally’ officially expanded? I don’t know. I’m not going to look that up, but it was over twenty years ago.