Last week, the news broke that several dictionaries were adding a secondary definition for the word Literally. Here’s the new entry from Google:
- In a literal manner or sense; exactly: “the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the traffic circle”.
- Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.
I’m not only not bothered by the move, I think it’s probably the right decision. It comes down to your understanding or philosophy of dictionaries.
Traditionally, dictionaries have been tools that describe language as it is used. They are not a plumbline against which language is measured, but a reflection of language the way it’s used by its native speakers.
That’s a little confusing, because in some ways a dictionary does serve a prescriptive purpose. “You can’t use that word that way.” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah, here’s the definition of it.” “Oh, I guess you’re right.” Those discussions happen all the time. Especially if you play scrabble against my family members.
But, we have to acknowledge that language shifts. Rewind no longer means to rewind a video cassette tape, but we still use the term. A record seldom means a vinyl LP these days, but we still call them records. Words shift as our usage of them shifts. It’s why Irregardless has become a word, regardless of the fact that it’s dumb. It’s used. Google ™ may not want us to use google as a verb, yet in common usage, we do. So dictionaries define it that way. They reflect the real world usage of the term.
And that, dear friend, is why it’s right for dictionaries to add a second definition for Literally. Because, in common usage many people literally seldom mean literally when they say literally.
The nice thing about usage, though, is you get to choose. If you don’t like a certain usage, you may choose to disregard it. So, if you want to use literally to mean, well, literally, you’re free to do so. Just don’t expect Merriam-Webster to fight that battle for you.