Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Literally" literally has the same meaning as "figuratively" -- according to Google

by Derek Spencer

Citizens of the Internet seem to be up in arms about what happens when you enter "define literally" into Google search. Google's definition for "literally" now encompasses both literal and figurative usage, something that, well, seems ridiculous on its face. Here's a short article:

Though this sounds terrible if you're an English language prescriptivist, literally has apparently been used to mean figuratively for quite a long time — as one of the commenters on the linked article helpfully explains.

In the eyes of Google, "literally" is now an auto-antonym: a word that has two contradictory meanings. The very idea of auto-antonyms (also known as autantonyms, enantiodromes, and/or contronyms) is fascinating, as the meaning of an auto-antonym cannot be known outside its context.

Some other auto-antonyms in English:

  • Ravel - to disentangle OR to tangle
  • Fast - moving quickly OR stuck (as in "held fast")
  • Rent - to lend to OR to borrow from

Language is always changing, so it's no surprise that some are sanctioning this usage of "literally, but it definitely sticks in the craw of some people.

Where do you fall on the spectrum? Are you a strict prescriptivist? Or do you think common usage determines meaning?

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

No comments: