I literally stand by the (mis)use of ‘literally’

Yes, it’s wrong. And that matters. But only because it makes you look stupid

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I literally don’t care that the Oxford English Dictionary now includes the wrong definition of “literally”. It is a ticklish paradox that a word can have, as an alternative meaning, the opposite of its original sense. That inversion happens in slang such as “wicked” and nobody gets all poshed up about the OED including that meaning, described as “informal”: “excellent; wonderful”.

Tom Harris, the Labour MP, asked: “So now the Oxford English Dictionary will redefine any word so long as it’s misused often enough? That is literally insane.” No, it’s not; it is literally what dictionaries do. They make lists of words and say what people use them to mean.

People may be ill advised, in some cases, to use words in new ways, which is what Harris is getting so worked up about. So much so that he imagined himself kneeling “on the ground, fists clenched, staring up at camera as rain pours down”, crying, “Noooo!”

I know what he means, but this is one of those dramas based on a terrible misunderstanding, with Harris cast as Tess of the d’Urbervilles. People use “literally” as an intensifier, as a super-strength “really” or “actually”. Nobody would notice if you said, “We are really up a creek without a paddle.” But put a “literally” in there and the whole internet has to shut down for a day for emergency repairs.

Yes, it’s wrong. Literally. And yes, it matters, but not because it’s wrong. It matters because it might make you look stupid. This is a small thing, but it is worth avoiding if you can. For that reason, don’t use the word “decimate”. Pedants know that it means to reduce by a tenth, but if you use it to mean that normal people will think you mean destroy utterly. And be careful with “incredibly”.

Language changes. When it does, some people will think that the new usage is “wrong” because they were speaking a perfectly serviceable Saxon-Norse pidgin before. They are wrong to think it is wrong, but any user of the language ought at least to know that there are people who, wrongly, think that to use “literally” to mean “not literally” is wrong. When language changes, it makes sense not to be at the cutting edge of irritating your readers or listeners.

Some changes, especially since the successive inventions of writing, printing and dictionaries, happen slowly. Henry Fowler, for example, was complaining about the misuse of “literally” in 1926: “We have come to such a pass with this emphasiser,” he wrote, that “we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate.” He compared it with “veritable” and declared: “Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.” Which is nonsense. Literally. But it is worth knowing that the spirit of Fowler is abroad, crying, “Noooo!” And being careful not to use words that make some people cringe.

Twitter: @JohnRentoul

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