This is something that I’m sure a lot of people have noticed: there is trend toward using the word “literally” in a sentence where the speaker is not actually being literal. For instance:
“There were literally a million people at Dave’s party” (when not even 50 people showed up)
“I literally dropped dead from shock” (when of course that didn’t happen)
This new use of the word really seems to irritate people, and “literally” has even appeared on lists of “words to ban in 2015” (e.g. TIME and TYT) Of course, those aren’t literally attempts to ban the word (ha!), but this is definitely an indication of how annoyed people are.
What’s happening with the word “literally” is actually completely normal. This is an example of language change. Languages are constantly changing, but mostly we don’t notice it. At any given point in time, languages are relatively stable, so we tend to think of language change as a thing that happened a long time ago, but which no longer affects us. But sometimes, a significant portion of the population starts using language in a different way, and people do start to take notice. Almost inevitably, this attention is negative. People who use “literally” in the new, non-literal sense, are accused of mangling or corrupting the English language, or they are simply called idiots.
But let’s try to take a more measured approach here. Instead of complaining about this, let’s ask why it’s happening.
First, it’s useful to examine the the older meaning of literally. What, exactly, does that word mean? Consider these pairs of sentences:
This is a linguistics blog.
This is literally a linguistics blog.
My mother works as a nurse.
My mother literally works as a nurse.
Birds are not mammals.
Birds are literally not mammals.
Is there any difference between them? Not really. The word “literally” doesn’t contribute much to the sentence. It has a meaning of something like “the sentence containing this word is true and should be taken at face value”. But that’s our default expectation anyway – we generally assume that the people we are talking with are going to be truthful. It’s one of the Maxims of conversation. So telling you this is a linguistics blog doesn’t really give you any additional information than telling you this is literally a linguistics blog.
So why bother even having this word? When would you use it?
Well, one situation where it’s useful is if you thought the person you were talking to might not take you at your word. If there was some chance they thought you were exaggerating, you could use the word “literally” to show that you are not.
For instance, it’s common to say “This will just take five minutes” to mean “This will take a short period of time”. It doesn’t mean “This will take exactly 300 seconds”.
But suppose that something actually does take 5 minutes. For instance, you have a frozen meal to put in the microwave, and the box says “Set for 5 minutes”. Then you could tell someone “Dinner will be ready in 5 minutes”. However, there is some chance that you might be misunderstood as using “5 minutes” to mean “a short time”, so to emphasize your point, you could say “Dinner will be ready in literally 5 minutes”. In fact, this happens a lot with extreme numerical expressions. Another example might be if you’ve been really sick, you might want to tell your doctor that you’ve been “vomiting literally every two hours” so she doesn’t think that “every two hours” is a short-hand for “very frequently”.
So in general, “literally” is going to be used with “extreme” contexts, contexts where you think you are in danger of being misunderstood as exaggerating. This is relevant to the current change that is happening. The old meaning of “this sentence is entirely true” is being lost in favour of the association with extreme emphasis. Now “literally” is routinely used to emphasize the extreme nature of a situation, without regard for whether the sentence, uh, literally reflects the truth of the matter. That’s why you now hear people saying:
“I literally lost my mind when she told me”
“I was literally walking on eggshells at the meeting”
Whether or not this change makes you shake with prescriptive rage, we should at least acknowledge that this doesn’t represent some kind of reckless disregard for English. It’s not like the change is completely random. People aren’t suddenly using “literally” to mean “milk”, or as a suffix to indicate progressive aspect. This is a change that makes sense, given the current state of the English language. People are taking an existing association between a word and a context, and then generalizing the meaning of that word from there. To me, this seems like a completely “reasonable” kind of language change.
This is not even the first time this has happened. The word “literally” is moving to join an existing class of words including “really” and “truly”. They contain the roots “real” and “true”, which are similar in meaning to “literal”, and they have been turned into adverbs which are now used solely for emphasis. Their relationship to “reality” or “truth” has completely disappeared.
For example, I can stand in my living room and say “It’s really freezing in here” and I don’t mean “The reality is that it is freezing in here” because water would not turn to ice in my living room. It has never gone below zero degrees. And nobody would think that’s what I mean either. I just want to emphasize how cold it is. Similarly I can say “That man is truly a giant” without meaning “It’s true that he is a giant”. I just want to emphasize how tall he is.
In fact, you can stick those words into the expression I’m mentioned above, and I don’t think anyone would bat an eye:
“I truly lost my mind when she told me the news” (was it true your mind was lost?)
“I was really walking on eggshells at the meeting” (really? the floor was littered with them?)
Perhaps one day the majority of speakers will use literally that way, and this will no longer be a point of debate, as happened with “real” and “true”. But for right now, this puts “literally” in an interesting position of having opposite meanings. Words with opposite meanings like this are called “contranyms”, and there are more examples of these words than you might think. For example:
against means “in support of” and “not in support of”, e.g. “The plank is leaning against the wall” and “The Liberals are against the new Conservative bill”.
finished in “That house was finished after a weekend of hard work” vs “After the hurricane, that house was finished”
seed “to plant seeds” or “to remove seeds” (e.g. seeded grapes – and this always confuses me too)
wind up “wind up a toy” means to start it, “wind up a meeting” means to end it (strangely, it’s the same as wind down in this case)
In these example, the different meanings are generally easy to tell apart, because they occur in different contexts. For example, “against” meaning “in support of” is used for physical objects holding each other up, but the “not in support of” meaning is used with people or ideas.
The word “literally” is different, because currently the two different meanings can occur in exactly the same context. Obviously, this has the potential to lead to confusion, so it’s an unstable state for a language to be in, and eventually it will have to resolve itself. Personally, I think that “literally” will become just another emphasizer like “really”, and it will be totally unremarkable. In fact, the word has already escaped just the extreme contexts, and is already being used in rather mundane situations:
Finally, just to be clear, I’m neither condemning nor condoning this new usage of the word “literally”. In any case, there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s just interesting to see a language change in progress.