Second definition of "literally" is inaccurate?

I know there was a lot of controversy a while back when the OED added the second, "informal" definition of the word "literally," but I think some of that controversy may have come from the fact that the definition doesn't actually match how people use the word, at least in my circles (I'm a 23-year-old American).
The definition currently reads "used for emphasis while not being literally true," and while that does describe some uses, I think it falls short of an actual definition. In my experience, the word is a neutral intensifier similar to "totally," with no implications regarding whether the statement in question is literal (definition 1.1) or figurative. In other words, it comes from definition 1.2 of "literal," not from an ironic reversal of the original meaning of "literally."

An example sentence:
Yesterday, a student literally told me that a dog ate her homework.
It is literally (definition 1) true that the student said that a dog ate her homework, but the teacher is not using the word to comment on whether the student's statement was literal or figurative. He is, instead, using it to emphasize the absurdity of the situation and to activate an emotional response.

Another example is Michael Cohen's tweet in response to Donald Trump's claim about being "the least anti-Semitic person you've ever seen in your life":
He literally said this to a guy wearing a yarmulke.
While Donald Trump did literally (definition 1) say it to a guy wearing a yarmulke, Cohen's use of the word is meant to show the intensity of the emotion and/or irony such a statement would hold for Trump's devoutly Jewish audience.

What are people's thoughts? Do you agree that the current definition is inadequate? Or am I missing a distinction that needs to be made?


  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    The actual OED definition is rather different

    I. In a literal manner or sense
    c. colloquial. Used to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’.
    Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’).

    1769 F. Brooke Hist. Emily Montague IV. ccxvii. 83 He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.
    1801 Spirit of Farmers' Museum 262 He is, literally, made up of marechal powder, cravat, and bootees.
    1825 J. Denniston Legends Galloway 99 Lady Kirkclaugh, who, literally worn to a shadow, died of a broken heart.
    1863 F. A. Kemble Jrnl. Resid. Georgian Plantation 105 For the last four years..I literally coined money.
    1876 ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Tom Sawyer ii. 20 And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.
    1906 Westm. Gaz. 15 Nov. 2/1 Mr. Chamberlain literally bubbled over with gratitude.
    1975 Chem. Week (Nexis) 26 Mar. 10 ‘They're literally throwing money at these programs,’ said a Ford Administration official.
    2008 Herald-Times (Bloomington, Indiana) 22 Oct. a8/1 ‘OMG, I literally died when I found out!’ No, you figuratively died. Otherwise, you would not be around to relay your pointless anecdote.

    I think this is pretty adequately covers the 'new' (though not as new as people think) use of literally.

    What's unusual in your examples, @Ludwa, is that literally is not part of the clause that make the hyperbolic claim. It's the reporting verb which is the the focus of amazement;
    — in the first example amazement that somebody actually said it
    — in the second example that Trump actually said it to that particular hearer

    To put the 'new' definition in context, the preceding OED definitions are

    I.1.a. In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.

    c1429 Mirour Mans Saluacioune (1986) l. 553 Litteraly haf ȝe herde this dreme and what it ment.
    2002 M. Desai Marx's Revenge (2004) x. 169 The expression ‘class warfare’ was meant analogically, not literally, by Marx and Engels.


    I.1.b. Used to indicate that the following word or phrase must be taken in its literal sense, usually to add emphasis.

    1670 Earl of Clarendon Ess. in Tracts (1727) 198 He is literally felo de se, who deprives and robs himself of that which no body but himself can rob him of.
    2006 N.Y. Rev. Bks. 2 Nov. 20/2 Bloody Dionysian which a man, said to be a ‘rapist’, is literally torn into pieces.

    followed by

    With reference to a version of something, as a transcription, translation, etc.: in the very words, word for word.
    b. In extended use. With exact fidelity of representation; faithfully.
    II. By or with regard to letters.
    a. With or by the letters (of a word). Obsolete. rare.
    b. In or with regard to letters or literature. Obsolete. rare.

  • The meaning in those examples is an extension of the meaning in first, core definition. "Literally" is being used to mean that something did literally happen but that it is also surprising/the speaker is not joking/being ironic. If you remove "literally" from them, the speakers' feelings of amazement are not apparent.

    Neither of the two definitons currently in the Oxford Dictionaries site cover this meaning. You are right that that's the meaning in these contexts. Is it a widespead enough use to warrant a new definition? I'd say yes, but lexicohraphers may disagree.

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