Official: ‘Literally’ no longer means ‘literally’

Language is malleable and meanings of words change all the time. However, it is rare for a word to completely deviate away from its original meaning, as was noticed week.

The term ‘literally’ no longer means ‘literally’ – literally!

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) included the erroneous use of the term to its lexicon back in September 2011, though it went unnoticed until last week, defining that it can be ‘used for emphasis rather than being actually true’. Example: We were literally killing ourselves with laughter.

Senior editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Fiona McPherson, defended the definition saying, “Our job is to describe the language people are using. The only reason this sense is included is because people are using it in this way.”

The OED has made the point that using this new definition in formal conversations is unacceptable.

We’ve rounded some of the most notable examples of ‘literally’s’ wide-spread usage for emphasis that not ‘literal’ fact:

Incredibly, the oldest documented incorrect usage of the term ‘literally’ dates back to 1769, when author, playwright and translator Frances Brooke wrote in The History of Emily Montague: “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.”

Also going back a couple of centuries, in 1876 Mark Twain wrote in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.”

More recently, UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described low-rate taxpayers as “literally living in a different galaxy”.

So long as its use is discouraged in formal documents, the new definition of ‘literally’ shouldn’t pose too much of a quagmire for translation companies, including Today Translations, which is literally the best translation company in the UK. Feel free to request a free quote on any of our many services, or email us a directly at [email protected]