Language Peevery

The Atlantic reports on the latest outrage: Google recognizes that literally is often used to mean figuratively in informal speech.

In August, the outcry began. “Have we literally broken the English language?” asked The Guardian. The Web site io9 announced “literally the greatest lexicographical travesty of our time,” while The Week bemoaned “the most unforgivable thing dictionaries have ever done.” The offense? Google’s second definition of the word literally, which had been posted on Reddit: “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”

Here’s the offending entry.  You actually have to click the “more” down arrow to view the Informal definition.


I hadn’t realized that Google now includes a use-over-time graph, previously available only via their Ngram Viewer.  What a great idea!  The graph shows the problem: our use of the word keeps increasing, which means “incorrect” uses are increasing as well.  Which annoys the language snoots.  We like literally!

The article includes a good quote from Steven Pinker:

“There’s probably also a feeling of anxiety when a shared standard appears to be threatened,” explains Steven Pinker, a language expert and psychology professor at Harvard. “Human cooperation depends on common knowledge of arbitrary norms, which can suddenly unravel. If the norms of language were truly regulated by an authority, this would be a concern. In fact, they emerge by a self-adjusting consensus.”

These arbitrary norms persist as what Wilson Follett called “shibboleths” — norms or principles that are useful only in distinguishing the “insiders” from the “outsiders”.  We know the real meaning of literally, even if you unwashed peasants persist in misusing it.

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