In August, the outcry began. “Have we literally broken the English language?” asked The Guardian. The Web site io9 announced “literally the greatest lexicographical travesty of our time,” while The Week bemoaned “the most unforgivable thing dictionaries have ever done.” The offense? Google’s second definition of the word literally, which had been posted on Reddit: “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”
What the linguistic doomsayers failed to realize is that this definition is far from new. People have used literally to mean figuratively for centuries, and definitions to this effect have appeared in The Oxford English Dictionary and The Merriam-Webster Dictionary since the early 1900s, accompanied by a note that such usage might be “considered irregular” or “criticized as a misuse.” But literally is one of those words that, regardless of what’s in the dictionary—and sometimes because of it—continues to attract an especially snooty breed of linguistic scrutiny. It is a classic peeve.
Peeving (whose name itself might cause peevery), or complaining about the way words are used, seems to have been around as long as language itself. In the 1600s, John Dryden peeved at his friend William Walsh’s failure to make “a due distinction between that, and who … That, ought alwayes to signify a thing; who, a person.” In the late 19th century, according to Jack Lynch, an English professor at Rutgers University and the author of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, peevers pounced on the newly minted electrocute, a mash-up of electrify and execute. “The fussiest person alive today would not complain about that,” Lynch says. Nor would most of us worry about snuck, which emerged in the 1800s as an alternative to sneaked, and which at the time “was considered crass and terrible,” according to Kory Stamper, a Merriam-Webster lexicographer.