If you're a stickler for proper word usage, then looking up the meaning of "literally" could be one of the most, well, literally frustrating things you could do. Merriam-Webster lists two definitions for the word:
- in a literal sense or manner; actually
- in effect; virtually
Macmillan, Cambridge and Google also list two opposing definitions of the word, which has come to be one of the Internet's most overused. To put it another way, now, in addition to its original definition, it's used to express extra emphasis as in, "I literally died watching that video of cats playing a turntable," or to describe an extreme, impossible situation as in, "His head literally exploded when he saw the new Facebook redesign."
What happens when a word can mean both its original, intended definition and—at the same time—that definition's exact opposite? For me, it means the erosion of communication. I worry about these things because as a communications professional I think we're figuratively suspended in language. When a word is hijacked and used incorrectly or, in this case, the opposite of how the way it was originally intended to be used, it means we are a step closer to not understanding each other.
All (perhaps) irrational fear aside, if the idea that a word can mean two opposite things doesn't make any sense to you, you're not alone. A programmer named Mike Walker has invented a Google Chrome extension that changes every use of "literally" to "figuratively." As the extension description explains, "That's literally all it does."
The extension isn't perfect, as it doesn't replace incorrect uses of "literally" on Twitter, and it also changes the rare correct use of the word to "figuratively," but that's not really the point. Whether you're a descriptivist and think language change is inevitable or a prescriptivist and think we should stick to the rules, the extension playfully reopens the conversation and makes for some fun online reading.
Follow Brian Greene: @bwilliamgreene