Literally the most ill-used word, ever…

Jul 5, 2013 | Language

IMAG1415Last week I wrote about words which have, over time, changed their meaning; sometimes subtly, sometimes almost completely and sometimes it is simply that the wrong meaning becomes the most used and therefore… right? A word that fits into the last category has to be… literally. Never has a word been so cruelly ill-used, it is literally a tragedy.

The Oxford Dictionary defines literally thus: in a literal manner or sense; exactly. Literal, exact, not figurative, not allegorical. But the meaning has ‘slid’ (I’m really trying to avoid writing literally again…). It has ‘dumbed’ down. It is used all over the place and very rarely in the correct, literal sense. But does that matter?

The word now has a secondary meaning: Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling. As in: I was literally about to kill someone. Probably not.

But this is not, as might be imagined, a new thing. Literally has been used in its expanded sense since the 18th century and by such literary (see what I did there?) greats as Jane Austen, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. You can’t argue with that! Or maybe you can. That is literally your choice.

In the meantime, a great excuse to include a link to possibly the best literal song ever from the team at Horrible Histories. Enjoy.