You Could Look It Up

Lior strikes again. He seems to have a knack for finding articles I want to talk about. His latest find is this io9 article accusing Google of contributing to the decline of society.

The article points out that Google’s definition of the word “literally” includes the modern usage to mean “not literally, but I feel strongly about it”. The author apparently feels that this is a symbol of the impending collapse of society.

Note that the author seems more concerned about Google’s legitimization of the practice than the actual usage itself, though he seems to fear both. I disagree on both counts.

Face it: language changes. Even in France, where the Académie française has been working to officially define the French language for more than 375 years, the language continues to change and grow. The eighth edition of their dictionary was published in 1935. The ninth edition has been in progress since 1986. Not exactly a sign of a stationary target.

The last really popular English dictionary to document a specific vision of what the language should be (i.e. a prescriptive dictionary) is arguably Noah Webster’s “An American Dictionary of the English Language”, which was published in 1828. Since then, dictionaries have become increasingly descriptive, defining the language as it is actually used. (As a point of reference, the dictionary considered by many to be the ultimate to which all dictionaries should aspire is the Oxford English Dictionary aka “The OED”. It was intended from the beginning to be descriptive, covering every word used in the English language from 1150 AD to the present. The decision to begin the work was made in 1857 and began in 1879. The original schedule called for publication around 1890; over a century and a half later, they’re still at it. Optimistic release schedules did not begin with the software industry.)

So dictionaries, even popular ones, have been documenting how the language is actually used for almost two centuries. Even if that is a sign of the impending end of civilization, Google’s inclusion of the modern usage of “literally” isn’t going to do much to accelerate the arrival of the final collapse. Google isn’t the first to include the modern usage, nor will it be the last. Note that The OED itself has included the modern usage since 2011. Interestingly enough, the “modern” usage actually predates The OED itself: the oldest documented usage comes from 1769.

What about the author’s other point, that the two definitions are contradictory and “that seems like it’s going to be problematic”?

English has been coping with internal contradictions for millennia. I won’t open the “flammable/inflammable” discussion now. I will point out that nobody has experienced personal harm due to the use of “custom” to mean “the normal, common way” and “a special version”. Ditto for the “dust” meaning both “sprinkle fine particles on something” and “remove fine particles from something”.

So even though the modern usage literally makes me grind my teeth, let us sanction its usage. Your choice whether “sanction” means “approve of” or “boycott”.

PS: Lior, your check is literally in the mail.