"Literally" Now Literally Means "Figuratively." Are You Literally OK With It?

4 years ago

Have you seen the internet hubbub about Google adding a secondary meaning of the word "literally" to its definition?

The second meaning of "literally" was actually included in several legit dictionaries a while ago, and reported back in March, but everyone literally got their knickers in a twist about it this past week.

Bridget Jones panties

Or not.

This is not the first time the word "literally" has trended on Twitter. Remember last year, when Joe Biden used the word so much that the Obama campaign sponsored the hashtag?

Biden literally never uses the word "literally" figuratively. I am guessing he does not approve of the change.

Most complaints I've seen focus on the contradiction: Using "literally" figuratively is oxymoronic, and confusing to the point of absurd.

Well … yeah. But words change meaning all the time. Ever call something "terrific?" Used to mean terrifying. This is how language works.

There are even a handful of words that literally -- and I mean literally literally -- still contain their own opposite meanings.

They're called contranyms. Here are just a few:

  • Fast: Moving quickly ("running fast") AND not moving at all ("hold fast" or steadfast or colorfast)
  • Left: Going away ("four people left the party") AND staying ("three people were left at the party")
  • Off: Shut down ("turn the lights off") AND turned on (as in "the alarm went off")
  • Oversight: To be responsible for ("she had oversight of the entire accounting department") AND to be irresponsible ("her oversight cost the company millions")
  • Sanction: To approve ("Most of the map is coloured green, indicating states where MMA is legal and sanctioned. But amid all that shading sit a few off-colour patches - states and provinces in which MMA is not sanctioned" from this news story) AND to punish ("The Obama administration faces mounting pressure to sanction the Egyptian military for its violent crackdown on opponents, even though officials refrained from any punitive action Wednesday" from this news story)

Some people already put "literally" on that list. It's a lot like the word "moot." Do you use "moot" to mean "not worth debating," when you say the phrase "the point is moot?" Me, too. But … some people still use it to mean "very worthy of debate."

Even older senses of "moot" include "to bring up for debate" -- and the debate itself. The word has mostly shifted, in my observation. (But please don't say "the point is mute," because THAT is just plain WRONG.)

Or maybe we'll keep the original meaning only in the phrase "taking it literally," but lose it in the intensifier "literally." I suppose I'll have to be OK with either … though, if I'm being honest, I probably won't use it that way myself for a while. On the other hand, 10 years ago I would never have believed I'd be dropping "LOL" in conversation (and here we are, lol).

But I'll still mourn the passing of the misuse of "literally," because it's been pure comedy gold.

Nobody says "LIT-rally" quite as joyously as Rob Lowe's Chris Traeger on Parks and Recreation, right?

Part of why he's so funny is that I think he IS using the word with a more narrow meaning -- Chris believes what he's saying, at least in the moment.

And then there's David Cross, with his pottymouthed "literally" rant:

And finally, the running "literally"/"figuratively" gag to end all gags, in Archer:

Archer literally 1

Archer literally 2

Archer literally 3

Archer literally 4

Archer is the best show about language on television, in my opinion, and all of the above gifs contain either the setup or the punchline -- they don't even get at how hi-LAR-ious this gag is (at least to word nerds like me). You'll just have to watch the show to fully appreciate. (Gifs via Something Something Danger Zone -- ha!)

What about you? Does it figuratively make you want to jump off a cliff when you hear "literally" used as an intensifier, or do you literally not give a whit? Tell me in the comments.

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