No we haven’t ‘literally killed’ the English language. Or metaphorically killed it. Stand down, semantics nerds

Literally the worst thing ever to have happened like EVER

Oh no! What are we to do? People are using “literally” to mean “not literally”! The world is metaphorically coming to an end!

I don’t want to single out Buzzfeed, but it was their article that caught my eye, so here it is: “The Wrong Definition Of ‘Literally’ Is Literally Going In The Dictionary“. Everyone all over the internet is doing it today, though, as if they’ve only just noticed that some people use “literally” in a non-literal sense, or as though they think that dictionaries are there to preserve a particular “correct” kind of English – perhaps that spoken by Deborah Kerr in The End of the Affair – against the rude intrusions of people who actually speak it.

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t stress these points, but quickly: 1) there is no such thing as “the wrong definition”. Well, I mean, there is, obviously. If the dictionary included the definition “pomegranate” or “a sort of reddish-purple”, then it would be wrong. But the dictionary can’t be wrong if it is reporting a common usage, which it is, because that is the dictionary’s job. And 2) this isn’t some modern thing that’s fallen into the language in the last shower, like “lulz” or “yolo”. As I mentioned in the last piece I wrote about it, “literally” has been literally used non-literally for literally more than two centuries:

“In Little Women (published 1868), Louisa May Alcott wrote “the land literally flowed with milk and honey.” Dickens wrote in Nicholas Nickleby (1839): “His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone”, and “‘Lift him out,’ said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence upon the culprit.” Frances Brooke wrote in The History of Emily Montague (1769) that “He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.”

But what I will say is: it’s fine, stop worrying, “literally” means “literally”, and it also means “not literally”, and you’ll almost never get confused between the two. Do you know how I know that? Because this sort of thing happens all the time. Seriously.

For instance: “quite”. It used to mean “entirely” or “completely” (and you can, quite literally, still see its old form in idioms). People used it to emphasise something (“I’m quite exhausted”). But as it became regular currency, it lost its force, and so among some users in some situations it came to mean “a bit”. But both meanings exist quite happily (see?) in the language, because context reveals them.

And: “wicked”. Guy Deutscher, in The Unfolding of Language, points out that if you were to hear two old ladies describing a play as “wicked”, you would assume they didn’t like it; if you heard two young women doing so, you would assume they did. Contradictory meanings rub along with each other for a long time.

It’s happened throughout history. “Fast” used to mean only “secure” or “solid” or “immobile” (“In his mountain fastness”; “The door was stuck fast”). Now it means, usually, “moving quickly”. But, again, both meanings survive, and you don’t get the two confused.

Other words have changed meaning entirely, leaving no trace in the modern usage of what they once meant. “Resent”, for instance, could once be used in a sentence “I was sure that this instance of his friendship to you would ever be warmly resented by you” (from a William Warburton letter quoted by Deutscher). Nowadays, we’d find it very odd that “friendship” could be “warmly resented”. But “resent” once meant “take with feeling”, either good or bad, and it was only later that it came to mean “take with bad feeling” only. And, for a while, the two meanings will have coexisted. Deutscher also points out that “like” once meant “please”: Shakespeare was able to say both “the music likes you not?” (which meant “don’t you like the music?”) and “the general so likes your music” (which meant what we take it to mean). The first of those two meanings has since been lost.

If “literally” is shifting in meaning (I’m not sure it is as much as we think, as mentioned), then you will still be able to use it in its “literal” sense, and everyone will understand. Similarly, if you want to say that Luis Suarez is literally the devil incarnate or that semantics nudniks are literally making you want to kill yourself, you can, and no one will think that you’re a suicide risk or that you are going to go to Anfield (or the Emirates) to perform an exorcism. It’s fine. The language isn’t turning to mush and we can all still understand each other. Relax, everyone.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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