Don’t Blame The Internet & Texting For The “Death Of English.” It’s Literally Been In Progress Since 1998!
About two weeks ago, someone at Gizmodo noticed via an imgur post that Google had updated the definition of the word “literally” to include an informal definition which actually contradicts the formal definition. The post on imgur was titled “We did it guys, we finally killed English.”
Forgetting the obvious hilariousness of them using the word in its own definition causing an endless feedback loop and a possible paradox in the space-time-grammar continuum I want to talk more about the people who said that we have finally been successful in killing the English language with this new definition of a word which contradicts what it actually means. When this was all playing out online I heard and read many people opine that it was the fault of our current school systems or the youth of today or the rise of texting and social media which has caused this calamity to occur. While I agree that it is extraordinarily silly to use the word literally in this contradictory manner and will never do it I hate the break the news to everyone but this isn’t a new or recent development and has actually been a long time coming.
First we jump back to the year 2002 when actor and comedian David Cross released a double-CD comedy album (with very NSFW language) called “Shut Up You F###ing Baby.” On it, was a 2 and a half minute rant about misusing that word which you can listen to below (warning, includes lots of swearing):
So, this misuse of the word has been around since at least 2002 when the Internet was just really becoming recognizable as what it is today and we were moving from dial-up to broadband connections en masse. (According to Wikipedia in 2004 dial-up connections and broadband connections were about equal in numbers in the 34 OECD countries. Countries which include the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia and many more considered ‘First World’.)
But wait, there’s more! I found a copy of the New Oxford Dictionary of English published in 1998 and decided to take a look at the definition of the word literally. Remember, in 1998 we were all psyched about having 56k dial-up internet connections and a Pentium II processor in our computers. And text messaging? Ha! It wasn’t until 1999 when cellular service providers in the UK allowed people to send text messages outside of their provider’s network. So text messages and it causing people to shorten words and abuse language certainly does not play any role in this publication’s definition of the word “literally.” Here’s what I found:
Yup, read it and weep. You can’t blame the current crop English teachers, the internet, social media, or the youth today and their gosh darn texting. This dictionary was published 15 years ago and it also mentions the informal usage of the word literally as being used for emphasis or to express strong feeling and not just what it actually means. They state that it isn’t acceptable in standard English even though it accounts for more than 20 per cent of the usage in the sample text the British National Corpus – which they use to do statistical analysis and hypothesis testing, checking occurrences or validating linguistic rules within a specific language territory.
Truth be told this is just the natural progression of language and has been a long time coming (well over 15 years since this dictionary was only published in 1998 but must have taken years to put together.) As annoying as it may be to logophiles like me it is what it is and there’s nothing we can do to change it. I even looked up “anyways” in that 1998 New Oxford Dictionary of English and it makes mention of it being an informal word too, much to my chagrin.
Does the usage of literally in a figurative sense grind your gears too? Does it astound you that even as far back as 1998 it was a recognized usage of the word no matter how informal? Let me know what you think in the comments.
Screen capture of Google’s definition of “Literally” via imgur.