Whoo! It’s literally happened! No, literally! No, I mean it! Google has, as almost everyone on Twitter has seen fit to observe, included the non-literal definition of “literally” in its online dictionary:
And, you know? Everyone seems thrilled. Ace lexicographer Kory Stamper is happy,
Copy Curmudgeon is, well, not entirely curmudgeonly about it,
while Tom Chivers is positively beatific, and he works at the Telegraph, for heaven’s sake:
“What I will say is: it’s fine, stop worrying, ‘literally’ means ‘literally’, and it also means ‘not literally’, and you’ll almost never get confused between the two. Do you know how I know that? Because this sort of thing happens all the time. Seriously.
For instance: ‘quite’. It used to mean ‘entirely’ or ‘completely’ (and you can, quite literally, still see its old form in idioms). People used it to emphasise something (‘I’m quite exhausted’). But as it became regular currency, it lost its force, and so among some users in some situations it came to mean ‘a bit’. But both meanings exist quite happily (see?) in the language, because context reveals them.”
Whee! Confetti! Except that context won’t reveal them; not this time.
It’s sometimes easy to ascertain when someone is using “literally” metaphorically: “That book literally opened my eyes.” The growing problem, as the use of it as a mere intensifier spreads, will be trying to decide when someone is using “literally” in its traditional sense. “I literally fell off my chair when I was told.” What, really? I suppose you could have done, if the news was very bad and/or you were perched on the edge of your stool. But did you, really? Context is no help when the literal truth of the sentence falls within the bounds of possibility. “The tiger was literally three feet away from me.” Wow, is that all? Could you smell its breath? Or do you just mean: “I was much closer to a tiger than you’ve ever been”? How will I know?
As the language has changed, there are many situations in which the word clearly is not being used in its traditional sense, but no longer any situations in which “literally” unambiguously means “literally”. Context is unable to provide that certainty; I can sometimes tell when you don’t mean it, but never when you do. And without the separation of context, the two meanings cannot successfully co-exist like they do for “quite”; the confusion means that one will supplant the other. With popular usage already pointing the way, it’s clear that “literally” will be an intensifier, and no more than that, in the years and decades ahead.
Nothing anyone can do about that, of course: might as well try to turn back the tide on the seashore. And it would have happened, inevitably, even if Google hadn’t seen fit to put it in the dictionary. But “literally”, in its old sense, was a compact and powerful adverb that was not quite like any other tool in the box. And for those who work with language, as opposed to merely observing it, the blunting of a sharp tool is always to be mourned. Of course the language will survive. But I don’t really feel like celebrating.