When does ‘literally’ mean ‘figuratively’? Always, say today’s dictionaries

When does ‘literally’ mean ‘figuratively’? Always, say today’s dictionaries

literalWhen is a door not a door? When it is ajar. Think on that while we get literally steamed over a new bit of language lunacy.

OK, that last sentence uses literally wrong. To get literally steamed, you would need to be in a steam room, which this writer (for better or worse) is not.

Of course that presupposes the previous sentence relies on the presumption that literal still means “literal” and not “figurative.” But the black and white contrast has been blurred by several arbiters of language (i.e., dictionaries).

Gizmodo reports that Google has redefined literally in a manner that makes the word not only useless but self-contradictory:

Trending: Former Obama-appointed U.S. attorney: ‘You’re hearing the death rattle of this presidency’

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

And Google is not the only offender. CNN notes that Merriam-Wesbter and Cambridge have also appended the new the meaningless definition of a word that has been around — and used more or less correctly — since the time of Chaucer. I culled this factoid from Dictionary.com, which defines literal in its original sense: “in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical.” [Emphasis added]

So will that be sufficient to restore reason and use literal in its literal sense? Don’t bet on it. The arc of language tends to bend toward popular usage, and usage these days has become (there is no other word for it) lame.

As CNN quips:

Next thing they’ll be telling us that there’s no ham in hamburger, no egg in eggplant, a boxing ring isn’t round, and tennis shoes aren’t just for tennis.

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Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy has written for The Blaze, HotAir, NewsBusters, Weasel Zippers, Conservative Firing Line, RedCounty, and New York’s Daily News. He has one published novel, Hot Rain, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), and has been a guest on Radio Vice Online with Jim Vicevich, The Alana Burke Show, Smart Life with Dr. Gina, and The George Espenlaub Show.


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