The definition in question:
1. In a literal manner or sense; exactly.
2. Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.
To read some of the reaction to the second meaning, you’d think the language gods must be crazy. On Aug. 11, 2013, your head could not literally explode, but on Aug. 12 it could.
I can relate to the feelings behind that Reddit posting, having insisted on the original meaning in my three decades as a copy editor and in my three books on language. But first let me count the ways my would-be fellow stickler, and the ensuing consternation, went wrong.
Nothing new. Literally.
In fact, the only thing new about that meaning was that somebody had posted something on Reddit. No matter: English sometimes defies logic, as “literally” proves, but it has nothing on the phenomenon known as “going viral.” The Reddit post spawned Twitter mentions and blog entries and newspaper articles. Within days, the Guardian was calling this nondevelopment “literally the biggest semantics story of the week.”
The “news” that the Oxford English Dictionary also notes the reviled usage made the story especially big in Britain. The OED “has revealed that it has included the erroneous use of the word ‘literally’ after the usage became popular,” the Daily Mail reported, as though the dictionary’s contents had previously been kept secret. A headline on that article was just as comical: “Definition added in September 2011 edition, but unnoticed until this week.”
It’s hard to quibble with the “unnoticed” part, given the reaction, but 2011? A blog entry on Oxford’s Web site does mention a 2011 online definition that reflects an update on “literally,” but it clarifies that the disputed meaning was first acknowledged a little earlier. As in 1903. On this side of the Atlantic, Merriam-Webster says it followed suit in 1909.
The timing isn’t the only detail that outraged observers got wrong. They misunderstood the role that dictionaries play. When Oxford or Merriam-Webster lists a word or a definition, it isn’t conferring a blessing of correctness. It’s simply recording the widespread use of that word or definition. If you’re hearing the nonliteral “literally” or “irregardless” or “ain’t” enough to annoy you, that’s a case for including them in dictionaries, not against it.
As linguists and lexicographers and even copy editors pointed out amid the “literally” outrage, a usage that is widespread and established enough to land in dictionaries isn’t the only argument for letting the word evolve. Good writers have used “literally” nonliterally as far back as the 18th century. Charles Dickens used it. So did James Joyce, Louisa May Alcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov.