Why I’m not a fan of the figurative literally

Recently Google added the definitions of “literally” to its search results so you see it when searching for the word. Note that I said definitions, plural, since the informal meaning also got added–the one where “literally” actually means “figuratively” or “in an exaggerated sense” or “not really literally”.

Google pulls those definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary, and when word got out about the new meaning’s recognition, Internet and real grammarians alike started debating what this means for English.

Honestly? Not much. As a joke, I retweeted a tweet with a screenshot of this definition saying English was dead. I get that language evolves, and this post was very close to becoming a multipage essay on prescriptivism, descriptivism, what exactly a grammar is (not just what you learned in school), and the history of language. But even without those considerations I still have a couple of issues with this meaning and how Google presents it.

Google doesn’t present the informal meaning as informal. The OED does, as it should. The language we use informally is far different than our formal language, and while the dictionary’s job is to present language as the people use it, it also shows how we use it. Are some terms informal? Slang? Regionalisms? Not acknowledging this is Google’s first flaw. Maybe this is specific to “literally”; maybe it isn’t. I haven’t tested. But stating that a term is informal would help out a lot of folks who are looking up the term and expect Google to present an answer they can use in a given context.

Second, the informal definition contains the word it is defining. Even though the word “literally” refers to the other definition, it still requires you to know which definition of the word is being referred to. Is it the formal one or the informal one? Couldn’t “literally true” be rewritten not to use the word in the definition? I think it can. Here’s my try.

used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being necessarily true

You can reach me by email, OED.

But the real issue isn’t with the definition or the inclusion. It’s with the people complaining about this inclusion as if they have to use it. “Oh look, the non-literal ‘literally’ is in the dictionary. English is dead!” Look, kid. No one’s holding a gun to your head and use the figurative “literally”. But if they are, let me know so I can join this grammar mafia.

Dictionaries contain lots of words. I would know; I was a spelling bee kid. I studied those words. I tried to read the dictionary and quit a couple of days in. Turns out I need a little more plot than what a dictionary provides. Those dictionaries contains lots of words, some we use, some we don’t because we haven’t met them yet, some we don’t because they’re slang or regionalisms or words we don’t like to use for one reason or another. And then there are words where we use some definitions but not others because the others are obsolete or slang or regionalisms or terms we choose not to use.

Here’s an example that encompasses several of those: Gay. The most common and accepted meaning is homosexual. But it also means happy, though that meaning is falling out of use and will most likely cause some confusing conversations if you use it that way now. And unfortunately there are people who use the term informally to mean stupid or to express disapproval, a term I choose not to use (and hope you do the same).

Contranyms–words that are their own antonym–have been part of the English language for a long time, and they aren’t going away any time soon. Look at “terrific” or “awesome”. Just because “literally” is gaining widespread use as one doesn’t mean I have to use it. Heck, I still cringe sometimes when there’s no way around avoiding “hopefully” as “it is to be hoped”. I probably won’t be using the figurative literally for a long time.


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