A Dictionary Is Telling Everyone to Calm Down About Using ‘Literally’ Wrong

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Have we passed peak “literally” policing? The people who misuse it liberally — the ones who literally can’t even, who literally die with some regularity — have become such an easy target that maybe it’s time to turn things around. Let’s see the mockers become the mock-ees. Maybe that second one isn’t actually a word, but that’s kind of the point: It’s time to pull out the giant stick that’s lodged itself up our collective butts and accept that fact that words can take on new meanings.

That’s the argument of a recent blog post from the dictionary Merriam-Webster — which, as far as dictionaries go, got pretty sassy in its defense of word misusers. It started by tackling awesome and awful, both of which have strayed pretty far from their original meanings (deserving of awe and full of awe, respectively) — and yet one, the post notes, is the subject of pedantic lecturing much more often than the other: “Have you ever said anything along the lines of, ‘Kids these days keep using the word awesome to describe things that are not, in point of fact, deserving of awe, and boy, does it burn me up’?” (Well, no, but I see where you’re going, MW.) “Why is it considered improper to use awesome to refer to such things as brunch, yet awful is, for most people, an acceptable descriptor for the meal that restaurants use to get rid of all their leftover food that is about to go bad?”

Point is, a) brunch is awesome, and b) we’re awfully selective about the words we choose to preserve. As the post points out, the word dilapidated originally applied only to buildings made of stone; fabulous, like incredible, was once used to describe something that strained belief; to aggravate used to mean making something heavier, or weighing it down. And as linguist Gretchen McCulloch recently noted on Twitter, even the “literally” police don’t have a full grasp of the word: “‘Literally’” doesn’t literally mean ‘literally.’ It means ‘pertaining to the alphabet,’” she wrote. “If we’re going to be pedantic, let’s go all the way.”

The moral of the story, from the Merriam-Webster post:

When we consider the ways that people have complained about the expanded senses of such words as dilapidated, awful, aggravate, and talented (the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge hated this word), three things seem clear:

1) Words will often stray from their roots
2) People will complain about this
3) The English language will somehow survive

It will survive, because it’s doing what language does — it’s a tool, and it adapts to the needs of the people who use it. And for those who still feel icky about the whole thing, here’s the dictionary again, with another dose of sass:

Literally dying.

A Dictionary Wants Everyone to Calm Down About ‘Literally’