There has literally never been a reaction like it. The last bastion of linguistic pedantry knocked over. Reams of invective across the media. And why? Because the Oxford English Dictionary has done its job.
Alleged misuse of the word ‘Literally’ is one of the favourite bugbears of those who delight in nothing more than correcting other people’s grammar and bemoaning the apparent desecration of our beautiful language. Literally means ‘in a literal manner, exactly’, rather than its increasingly common usage as a word of emphasis and exaggeration, they say.
Except that the OED disagrees, and has in fact disagreed since 2011. It’s just that nobody noticed until this week that the definition had been extended to include the sense of emphasis, reflecting the way the word is actually used by speakers today.
Of course I wholly endorse the extended definition. As I have said literally thousands of times, language changes and those who document this need to recognise that evolution and record it, which is what has happened here.
What is funny about this story is that it seems to be the straw which has literally broken the camel’s back. There has been a wonderful outpouring of emotion on the subject. The alleged misuse of literally is the linguistic touch paper which stokes up all pedants, so this is the story which has enraged them more than any other.
But of course it is not the death of English as we know it, as some have suggested. It is just an acknowledgement that the English language is always changing, as the strap line of an excellent blog on new words points out.
Those who are upset by this change should literally get over it.