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.

About Kim Siever

I am a copy­writer and copy­ed­i­tor. I blog on writ­ing tips most­ly, but I some­times throw in my thoughts about run­ning a small busi­ness.

Fol­low me on Twit­ter at @hotpepper.

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