The Oxford English Dictionary now recognizes the long-used informal sense of "literally" as an intensifier meaning "virtually" or "figuratively" -- which makes "literally" a contronym, a word that's its own antonym.

The dictionary states the definition as ‘in a literal way or sense’ but adds that, informally, it can be ‘used for emphasis rather than being actually true’ such as ‘we were literally killing ourselves laughing’.

The definition was added in the September 2011 edition, but went unnoticed until this week.

Senior OED editor Fiona McPherson commented in jest: ‘It seems to have literally slipped under the radar.’

The move will be a relief to commentators and politicians who have been ridiculed for using the word incorrectly.

("You literally don't need to take 'literally' literally:
After years of misuse the Oxford English Dictionary

gives in and changes word's meaning",
Mail Online, 14 August 2013)

The OED still prescribes that the figurative use "is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread."

David Haglund at Slate wrote "A Reminder about 'Literally'" discussing the long history of words' meanings broadening and shifting, and how words sometimes arrive at meanings that contradict older ones (and may or may not coexist with them).


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Replies to This Discussion

Well, that is "literally" a bite in the ass! 


I don't care what Oxford indicates.  I still very much dislike the incorrect usage of the word "literally".

I'm with you, preferring to see "literally" used strictly! I find the sense of "figuratively" grating, compromising what ought to be a straightforward, useful word.

It's true that the sense we're objecting to has been around for longer than the United States. One of several examples from the 1760s: "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." (Frances Brooke, The History of Emily Montague, Vol. IV (1769), p. 175, quoted in "Literally: a History" at  Language Log)

The more we allow words to mean what they don't mean, the less language means anything at all.

I like your thought Keith.  For many years I've had the idea that communication is hard enough without people constantly changing the meanings of words.




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