Wordy Wednesday: literally
‘You’re like, literally killing me bro…’
It used to be easy to patronise those who used literally like this (it’s even more tempting to do so when, as here, it’s used with the sloppy filler like). There’s even a great cartoon from the The Oatmeal that will heighten the sense of superiority felt by the more semantically precise:
That all changed last week, when a metaphorical meaning for literally was recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary:
This led to much harrumphing from language lovers, teachers, bloggers, tweeters and journalists last week, with The Guardian, for instance, asking if we’ve ‘literally broken the English language.’
But it’s not the OED’s job to censor language or keep it in a straitjacket, and the English language isn’t broken, it’s merely evolving. And while this use of literally may seem like the conversational tic of the ill-educated, those who use it could rightly claim respected literary antecedents, as noted by Tom Chivers in The Telegraph:
“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.”
Language evolves constantly, and contrary meanings often co-exist. You just have to look at how ‘sick’ changes meaning according to the speaker and the context, with ‘that was sick,’ likely to mean ‘that was awesome’ in teenage argot, whereas to the older generation it still suggests something deeply unpleasant… In the same way, terrific, which originally meant ‘causing terror’, now more often than not has a positive connotation (although we still give the nod to its original definition when we say ‘there was a terrific bang,’ for instance).
Although recognising ‘literally’ as meaning both literally and non-literally may make it seem like we’re straying into Humpty-Dumpty territory (‘When I use a word,’ said Humpty-Dumpty in a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less,’), the English language doesn’t need all the King’s horses and all the King’s men to put it back together again because it’s not broken, it’s evolving.