Tracking changing language use is essential; literally

Posted on September 11, 2013


The Oxford English Dictionary now defines the incorrect use of the word ‘literally’, though it has seemingly gone unnoticed, until now.

The traditional definition in the OED states that ‘literally’ means: “in a literal way or sense”. However, alongside that entry it suggests that informally, it can also be “used for emphasis rather than being actually true”.

The entry was updated back in September 2011, however. With a clear touch of irony, the senior editor for the tome, Fiona McPherson, said:

“It seems to have literally slipped under the radar.”

The updated entry will please many in the public eye, with celebrities and TV sports pundits often using the alternative meaning.

However, they are in good company; Mark Twain included the ‘newer’ meaning of the word back in 1876. In his book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he wrote:

“And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.”

There will likely be many who will literally be incandescent with rage about the updated entry. However, McPherson insists it is the job of the OED to define language according to how it presently being used in society.

Similarly, professional writers need to keep tabs on the changing use of language. This is especially the case when writing tailored news feeds for websites. When trying to connect with an audience and engage the readership, it’s crucial to keep content relevant and modern.

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