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.

Listening to Joe Biden give a speech literally makes my head explode

I liked Biden’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.  But he should leave the ad-libbing to Bill Clinton.  His prepared text, which you can read here, is fine.  But his ad libs showed a strange, almost obsessive penchant for the word literally. As a blogger for the Washington Post put it:

At the beginning of the speech, which went on only slightly less long than it seemed to go on, Joe spoke about his love for his wife. But as the speech went on it became clear where his true affections lay: nestled around the word “literally.”

Here is the text as delivered.  I count ten occurrences of literally. Sometimes he used it correctly; sometimes he used it incorrectly.  It didn’t seem to matter to Joe.  It served as an all-purpose intensifier with which to punch up the speech.  At one point the text says:

My fellow Americans, we now find ourselves at the hinge of history. And the direction we turn is in your hands.

But here Joe doubled down on his favorite word and said: “And the direction we turn is not figuratively, is literally in your hands.”  Yikes.  (By the way, double down has become a trendy political term.  Here is an article on Romney doubling down on his initial response to the latest trouble in the Middle East. At least it doesn’t say that Romney was literally doubling down.)

Of course, complaining about the misuse of literally is just pedantry, as well as a lost cause.  Here is xkcd, as usual making the point perfectly: