Paradise for pedants: Software replaces the word 'literally' with 'figuratively' online

Stop terrorising the uneducated masses while you literally can
  • @jjvincent

Does the misuse of the word ‘literally’ have you figuratively tearing out your hair? If so then we literally have the app for you: an extension for Google’s Chrome browser that replaces every instance of the word ‘literally’ with ‘figuratively’. 

It’s called ‘Literally’ and comes with the following description: “Replaces the word 'literally' with 'figuratively'. That's literally all it does.” The five star reviews from users say it all: “This is figuratively the best invention of all time,” writes one delirious downloader.

Of course, many of you will point out that despite the continual (and surely exhausting) outrage of pedants online, the twin history of ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’ is not quite as divergent as you might think, with the word ‘literally’ being deployed in a hyperbolic sense for centuries.

Pundits have pointed out that even Charles Dickens was ‘guilty’, writing in Nicholas Nickleby in 1839 that “his looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone,” while the OED itself includes the description of literally as a word “used for emphasis while not being literally true” – a definition that was first introduced in 1903 but with the earliest example dating back to 1769.

Whether or not you like to pick people up on the distinction depends on whether you’re a descriptivist or a prescriptivist (do you think language change is inevitable or that there are rules that should be enforced?) but in either case the ‘Literally’ extension makes for fun reading online.

As Slate’s Will Oremus points out, installing the browser leads to some glorious “unintentional accuracy” from excited headline writers. “10 Things You Figuratively Do Not Have Time For” and “The 2014 MTV Movie Awards Were Figuratively On Fire” are two examples of the honest clickbait the extension produces.

However, while the widget (designed by programmer Mike Walker) doesn’t cover tweets and images, it can also skew meaning in the other direction, as with a recent story “White Sox Rookie Abreu Figuratively Destroys a Baseball.” Unfortunately this is only downplaying Abreu’s prowess in the diamond: he literally destroyed that ball.