My government teacher in high school, Mr. Madden, used to drive me crazy with the word literally. He would pronounce it litally. “You LITALLY don’t know anything about the Constitution!” Like he had a Southern drawl and was a good ol’ boy. Except he wasn’t. He went to Miami and I’m sure he grew up in Ohio.
I’m also confident he did not use literally correctly at least 75% of the time, and I’d like to take this opportunity to blame him for my generation’s corruption of this word and subsequent redefining.
Now, in case we have not been properly introduced, hello, my name is Meaghan and I am a prescriptivist. For the most part. (What’s funny about this is prescriptivist isn’t a fully accepted word yet. Ha!) I openly admit it. I am a grammar snob and I judge people. I’m probably judging you right now. The other part of my confession is, I don’t know everything. I’m certain I say/write things incorrectly too. I try to restrict my snobbery to things I expect you learned if you grew up in America and graduated from high school.
But one of my big pet peeves is how obsessed people have become with using literally in a completely inaccurate sense. I know I’m not alone. The Oatmeal’s description of literally is the best.
And recently, a very sad thing happened. The OED caved to all you abusers of the English language! Now, I first heard that Google changed its meaning of the word literally to include the completely inaccurate, ass-backwards way of using literally to “express strong feeling while not being literally true”. And I thought to myself, “Google can’t just CHANGE THE MEANING OF A WORD. They aren’t the OED.” And then I found this post about the OED. They changed their definition too!!
And I put my head down on my desk and cried. Not really, but I thought about.
People talk about Mark Twain and Chaucer using literally in this alternate sense, but I have chosen not to accept these arguments as motivation to change the meaning of the word. If you haven’t looked it up yet, the first (and only true, IMO) meaning of literally is “in a literal sense; exactly”. As in, in actuality. When people use it in the other (wrong) way, they don’t, in fact, mean anything literally at all!
So I say, you can take your false meaning of literally and LITERALLY shove it up your ass.
Whoops. Sorry. I guess what’s done is done. I know there’s a pretty interesting history of words’ meanings changing over time. (Check out this list from Slate.) But don’t expect to hear me concede on this soon.