“Literally” Broken: How Dictionaries Botched the Definition

As some of you may already be aware, several dictionaries have now accepted the colloquial meaning of “literally,” with Google’s definition being the most recent to shift. The Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster have added similar alternate definitions. Well, these dictionaries have botched it. Let me explain why.

Figurative vs Literal

The Prescriptivist/Descriptivist War

Before I get going on the specific word in question, let me address the broader argument: Prescriptivists and descriptivists have been battling it out for decades over how definitions should work. While prescriptivists believe that rules must be established and enforced by a group of highly educated individuals, descriptivists argue that language can and must evolve. For prescriptivists, the role of the dictionary is to determine what the correct way to use language is. For descriptivists, dictionaries are a way to record and compile information on how language is actually used.

For a thorough and entertaining examination on the topic, check out David Foster Wallace’s “American Usage and the English Language” (available in the collection Consider the Lobster).

Both the prescriptive and descriptive approaches are problematic. Prescriptivists would kill the language completely by locking it down and insisting that origins are more important than destinations. Descriptivists would bring questions of meaning to a popular vote, which—if we applied it across the board—would mean that “their,” “they’re,” and “there” would become interchangeable, “butiful” would be an accepted spelling, and so on.

So what am I? I consider myself a “deeper-scriptivist.” Language must evolve, but carefully. Some popular uses make good sense and allow language to become more functional. Others create ambiguity or disrupt meaning. Our choices shouldn’t be based on either elitist practices or whatever happens to be common at a given time. Rather, we should guide language so it evolves in ways that allows for clear, effective communication.

The “Literal” Problem

I previously discussed the difference between figurative and literal at great length. To give the simplest recap I can, figurative means that the statement did not actually happen as described; the hyperbole or metaphor was a figure of speech used for emphasis. Literal means it actually, really, not-just-saying-this, authentically happened as described.

But to quote something I mentioned previously:

Using “literally” incorrectly is a common phenomenon, and it stems from a simple but strangely logical misstep.

When we say literally in conversation, we are indicating that we aren’t exaggerating, falsifying information, or otherwise attempting to mislead our listeners. If I say, “I literally ate, like, a mountain of burgers,” I’m probably not claiming to have accomplished that feat of indigestion. Rather, I’m saying that the feeling I had after eating a lot of burgers honestly felt like I’d eaten a whole lot more. While I’m using both metaphor and hyperbole (which we’ll discuss in the next lesson), I add “literally” so people know I’m not being flippant; I literally feel the figurative language captures the experience.

So why, if I acknowledge that the common usage stems from a logical misstep and even fills a function within conversation, would I reject the new definition? Easy.

This Definition Breaks Itself

Until the recent definition, “figuratively” and “literally” were set up as opposites. Either one clarifies how directly the statement attempts to capture what really happened. Accepting this common usage of “literally” disrupts the figurative/literal split and makes both words less functional. If “literally” can also mean “figuratively,” it doesn’t mean much of anything. Meanwhile, “figuratively” is out of a job.

Of course, most people don’t use the term “figuratively.” When they want to express that something is figurative, they more commonly say, “Well, not literally.” Which just deepens the problem.

Further, to have two directly contradictory meanings of “literally” adds ambiguity in basically every instance the word is used. If I say, “I literally drank a whole twelve-pack last night,” do I mean that I actually did so or simply that I drank a lot? If I say, “I literally can’t breathe right now,” am I expressing amazement or the need for medical attention? Context will sometimes clarify this, but while other words that mean their own opposites change in form or structure when they flip meaning (e.g.,  ”Who left?” vs “Who is left?”), these opposing definitions of “literally” look and behave identically (e.g., “I’m literally on fire” vs “I’m literally on fire”).

The definition claiming that it’s “used to acknowledge that something is not literally true” is a troubled exception because the self-reference relies on the first definition being the only accurate one. Otherwise, the definition becomes recursive. The definition above can easily be extrapolated to:

Used to acknowledge that something is not [used to acknowledge that something is not [used to acknowledge that something is not [used to acknowledge that something is not [...] true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling] true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling] true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling] true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.

In other words …

Oddly, the problem doesn’t stem from the common usage itself—which, as I noted earlier, does have an communicative function. The problem arises when we codify that colloquial use and accept it as correct. When we do so, no one wins. Even the colloquial use of “literally” relies on the colloquial use being incorrect. It is a reference to the original definition of literally much akin to the emphatic use of “really” or “totally” (which don’t have similar colloquial entries in their definition). If “literally” stops meaning “literally,” the colloquial reference breaks down too … and we’ve lost every communicative function of the word.

So when I say the dictionaries got this one wrong, I don’t mean they’ve done something incorrect. It’s dictionaries that help us define what is correct, after all. I simply mean that this bit of evolution is not a positive one. If we want to make the most of our language, we need to be more careful about how we approach it. And I mean that literally.