Lindsay Stitt / The Silhouette
This summer, Webster’s dictionary added a new definition for the word “literally.” Now, in addition to being defined as “in a literal manner or sense,” literally is also “used to acknowledge that something is not literally true.”
No, that is not a typo. Literally is now formally defined as “not literally.” How is it possible for a word to be defined as “not itself”? That is the same as defining table as “not table” or jumping as “not jumping.” With this new definition, it is impossible for people to use this word without including an anecdote about which definition of the word is being used.
Now, in daily language, it is impossible to decipher between “literally” and “not literally.” A new word must be used to describe the opposite of “figurative.” Words such as “actually” and “really” may be used in place of “literally”, but how long until the definition of these words changes as well? Since the prolonged misuse of a “literally” has led to a new definition, what is there to stop this from happening again?
Each word that is created to express the opposite of “figuratively” will be used for exaggerative purposes until it potentially too loses its true meaning. As well, with this new definition, using “literally” has less emphasis when used to exaggerate. Saying “I could literally eat a cow” is not so impressive because it can be interpreted as “I could not literally eat a cow.” Before long, people may stop using “literally” altogether because it has lost all meaning.
If I jumped off the roof of a house, and lived to tell the tale, I would be unable to do so. When I would say “I literally jumped off the roof of a house,” it could be interpreted as “I not literally jumped off the roof of a house.” And the English language does not provide me with an alternative way to express myself. Definitions are created to help people express themselves, but when a definition contradicts itself, it prevents people from relaying their thoughts. This contradictory definition traps people in a world where nearly every statement will be interpreted in a figurative sense.
As well, all the people who have been misusing “literally” for years are now told they are grammatically correct. What is the point in striving towards using words properly if misuses can become correct? How much integrity can the English language maintain if it is so easily influenced by how people misuse it?
Adding this new definition will confuse the masses, praise the grammatically incompetent and prevent clear communication. It is literally the worst decision Webster’s dictionary has ever made.