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The Literal Truth About The Word Literally

By Jaclyn Skurie · National Geographic News · Published August 16, 2013

Jaclyn Skurie

National Geographic

Published August 15, 2013

The Internet is abuzz with irate grammarians criticizing the way Google defines the word "literally."

In addition to the word's original meaning—"in a literal manner or sense"—the Google definition also reads "used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling." The key words here: used to.

Bloggers are declaring it the end of the English language and a dark day for linguists. How can the definition of the word "literally" literally not be literal? (Watch: "Slang Hunters.")

An employee at Words Worth Books, an Ontario bookstore, wrote on Twitter that "one of our staff was so upset about this, he had to go lie down. #literally." "We did it guys! We killed English!" tweeted someone with the handle @magnus72.

But these quibblers are wrong. The un-literal definition of "literally" is not new. It has been used for at least 200 years, and we have the proof. Literally.

In 1769's The History of Emily Montague, novelist Frances Brooke wrote, "He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies." Was this lucky man of mystery literally eating lilies? No. He was simply surrounded by a selection of attractive women—figurative lilies.

The Oxford English Dictionary has also listed this secondary definition of the controversial term since 1903.

Katherine Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, attributes the recent hype to a concept known as "recency allusion." This term, coined by Stanford University professor and linguist Arnold Zwicky, means that because you have only recently noticed something, you believe it to be new—even if it originated in the days of Shakespeare.

The dispute surrounding the term "literally" may stem from a common misconception about dictionaries. Contrary to popular belief, the stated aim of most dictionaries is both to codify English as it is intended to be spoken (prescriptive) and record it as it is actually spoken in everyday life (descriptive).

"We serve a dual purpose: to help people compose text and to help people understand text," Martin said. "We wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't provide definitions of words as they are actually used."

She said she is surprised by the public's reactions. In the past two centuries, nobody has objected to the definition until now, as far as she knows.

"I wonder if it will reach a critical mass where eventually this will become an accepted use of 'literally' and people won't consider it informal, colloquial, or objectionable anymore," Martin said.

"I guess we just have to wait and see what happens."

This definition of "literally" may not be new, but definitions are constantly changing. Here are five words that have changed their meaning over time:

Assassin (n.)

In Arabic, the word "assassin" literally means "hashish-eater." During the time of the Crusades, it was used to describe certain Muslims who were sent by their elders to murder Christian leaders. Now, the word is most commonly used to mean a killer or someone who puts another to death.

Cat (n.)

When we think of the word "cat," we think of a domesticated house pet. In the 1920s, however, the term gained new meaning with the rise of jazz culture. A cat was no longer just a furry feline friend; it could also be someone who knew a lot about jazz music, a "cool cat."

Ninja (n.)

Traditionally, the Japanese word "ninja" meant a master of the martial arts. In English, it has come to also mean a person who is very skilled at something, especially in the context of computing (a coding ninja or a javascript ninja).

Hone In On vs. Home In On (v.)

Originally coined in the early 20th century, the phrase "home in on" was used to describe the act of moving toward a target or destination. People frequently confused "home" with "hone," a verb that means to sharpen. Because the definitions and sounds are so similar, they are used interchangeably.

Snack (n.)

The Oxford English Dictionary lists the meaning of "snack" in 1402 as a snap or bite, usually from a dog. From there, the word evolved to mean a share or portion of something, a mere "small quantity." This is where we derive our modern understanding of the term "snack"—a small portion of food instead of a full meal.

—Follow Jaclyn Skurie on Twitter.

3 comments
Steve C
Steve C

That part about 'assassin' is quite a bit off.  Just saying.

Brian Neufeldt
Brian Neufeldt

Another example is a lot of young people using the expression "one off", instead of "one of", which is short for "one of a kind". I think they misheard the expression when they were younger, and never saw it in writing.

Patti Edson
Patti Edson

@Brian Neufeldt Actually, I believe it is of British English origin, more understandable to us if thought of as a one (item) offer. The phrase is quite common in books written by British authors.

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