You’ve probably heard by now that several dictionaries recently altered the entry for “literally” to include a definition that basically means the opposite of literally, that it can be used to described things that aren’t actually literal.
I noticed in some of the responses to these events that people are quite irate that dictionaries have redefined “literally” in a way that doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean. Before we start lambasting dictionaries for bringing about the downfall of civilized society, however, we must remember one thing:
Dictionaries don’t define words.
Or rather, they don’t arbitrarily create definitions for words. Their actual purpose is to record how society uses words.
How many times have you heard of a dictionary finally adding a slang word that had already been in place for a couple of years? That’s an example of their not creating the word nor its definition but simply illustrating how the public uses that word.
This is the case here, too. Dictionary companies didn’t decide that “literally” can now mean “figuratively”; they decided that enough English speakers use it that way to warrant recording that usage.
Let’s keep in mind that this is how language works. Words emerge, words evolve, and words die out. Literally, this isn’t the first word to mean something completely different from its original usage.
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