Literally, Not Figuratively: When, How, and Why Did it Happen?

One of the great things about the English language is that’s so expansive. As a kind of linguistic black hole, sucking words in from all over, it’s a rare occasion for a person with a good vocabulary in English to have to resort to idiom or explanation in order to refer to a singular object or experience. When we do, it’s most often because we’re opt for the lazy route.

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Linguistic trends that abuse words come and go. Like is one that has lasted for generations now, but the misuse of one word has transformed the meaning of two different words over the past decade: literally and figuratively.  

You know what I’m talking about:
It literally blew my mind!
He was literally nine feet tall!
She
literally chewed his head off!

No. It, he, she did these things figuratively.

We all have detected this atavistic trend, but who’s to blame for it? Well, we all are actually, but for now let’s place the onus on television. Sitcoms have a heavy impact on American culture. In this case shows like How I Met your Mother and Parks and Recreation have pushed the irony of using literally as figuratively while Archer has made correcting the mistake a running gag throughout its 7 seasons.

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Literally means something that is actually true: the puppy literally chewed through all of my shoes, for instance. When we’re using words for effect, as hyperbole to make a point, then it is figurative. I’ll smack you so hard your grandchildren will be born dizzy. This is not a literal but a figurative statement. Why? A person could never be so discombobulated by a blow to the head that they would pass the physical effects onto a second generation.  Literally and figuratively have opposite meanings; or at least they did.

Merriam-Webster Figuratively Literally Changes Definition

English is never in stasis. Thus Webster, Macmillan, and Google, to name just the heavyweights of defining our language, amended the definition by adding a second meaning, “in effect, virtually.” The authors of Webster’s addressed this contradiction by commenting:

“Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposition of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.”

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Does it Matter?

So now it’s correct, according to the dictionary, to use a word to mean its opposite. Does this have a lasting effect on the language? Probably a little yes and a little no.

Spoken language is much more casual and morphic than when it’s written. We may be willing to throw meaning under the bus when hanging out with friends, and can certainly use context and body language to interpret possible misunderstandings, while tending to stay much closer to defined meaning when writing formally. I definitely can’t see a future where ‘I was literally crushing it everyday’ shows up on resumes. However, language evolution is constant and unpredictable, so anything is possible.

What about you, does it literally boil your blood when you hear words taking on new meaning or can you figuratively go with the flow of linguistic trends?

literally