Literally: When Lexicographers Give Up

Monday, August 26, 2013

Several dictionaries have expanded their definition of the word "literally" to include the opposite of its traditional meaning. Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionaries, explains how lexicographers respond to changes in popular usage -- and how misuse can change a word's meaning.

Comments [29]

tom LI

Nancy from NY - being "well-educated" (omg I used the abused parenthesis) does not mean the person has a solid grasp on their native language. Which in the US is very diverse across all the states. For the last several decades we, the US citizenry, have been evolving into a slang speaking nation, not one populated by language and elocution masters.

You might not get upset sitting there acting all high and mighty over your mastery of various words...but can you hold up over time...would we catch you making similar mistakes?

Aug. 26 2013 06:43 PM
Mark from Manhattan

RichardUWS -- Thanks, I stand corrected.

Aug. 26 2013 04:26 PM

Mark from Manhattan: Pathétique among Beethoven's opera (the plural form of 'opus') is a piano sonata.

Aug. 26 2013 12:37 PM
Dorothy from Manhattan

50 or so years ago in a Catholic girls' high school a nun explained that priests have rule of celibacy (remaining unmarried) while nuns must be chaste (without sex). Untypically in those years one of the girls had brought up priests who had affairs/mistresses. The nun thereby gave such priests a pass. (We didn't know then about what was happening with altar boys.)

Aug. 26 2013 12:01 PM
Manny from Hoh

Words that are ambiguous and poetic seem to be out of fashion.. In my CV I wrote "I have a penchant for technology" and was told it makes no sense.

Aug. 26 2013 12:00 PM


Aug. 26 2013 12:00 PM
Mark from Manhattan

While we are correcting word usage, I have to correct a musical term that Brian used. The Pathetique by Beethoven is actually a concerto, not a symphony. The Pathetique Symphony is by Tchaikovsky. Perhaps I am being too persnickety here.

Aug. 26 2013 11:58 AM

Irregardless of the personage engaged in the usage, we shouldn't misunderestimate them.

Aug. 26 2013 11:58 AM
Frank De Canio from Union City, NJ

I always saw pathetic as meaning sad in a critical sort of way. Apathetic I take to mean flat in affect. And just for clarification, it was Tchaikovsky who wrote the Pathetique symphony. Beethoven wrote the Pathetique piano sonata and the Pastoral symphony.

Aug. 26 2013 11:58 AM
Valerie from New York

Presently. People use it to mean "now"; it means "soon"

Aug. 26 2013 11:56 AM
David from Montclair

The use of "literally" in the opposite of its traditional meaning is to me illiterately a mistake.

Aug. 26 2013 11:56 AM
Dom from lost in NJ

Decimated - use incorrectly all the time ...

Aug. 26 2013 11:54 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

Betsy from Bushwick: You just reminded me of another misuse: People now use the word laying (which is what a chicken does with its eggs) for lying, which is what you do when you are prone on a bed.

Aug. 26 2013 11:54 AM
Doreen from Queens

It's more of a phrase and someone already mentioned it in comments -
Shouldn't "He could'nt care less" be used but people say "He could care less" instead?

Aug. 26 2013 11:53 AM

FACTOID meant something not factual but thought to be so by many people. It is now used as a synonym of FACT. (Note the -oid ending, as in humanoid.)

Aug. 26 2013 11:52 AM
Nancy from NYC

I don't get "upset" if someone improperly uses the word "literally", Edward from NJ; it just provides information about that person -- that they're using language improperly and thus are not well educated. Likewise for use of the phrase "I could care less" to mean "I could not care less".

Aug. 26 2013 11:52 AM
Jay from Woodside

This show is proving to be very unique.

Aug. 26 2013 11:52 AM
Ana from brooklyn

Enormity! It drives my wife crazy when this word is misused.

Aug. 26 2013 11:52 AM
Christine from Westchester


Aug. 26 2013 11:52 AM
Betsy from Bushwick

Prone literally means to lay on your belly (its a military term for the shooting position), but I think it generally gets used for laying on one's back.

Aug. 26 2013 11:51 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

Language is always evolving, as demonstrated by changes in the meanings of words. However, as all of the law - as well as most of academia - is based on semantics, casual misuse is unacceptable. Once a word crosses over from casual misuse to an additional use, then it might be possible to use it in academia, but most sticklers will find it unacceptable.

Aug. 26 2013 11:51 AM

"Normalcy" has replaced the correct word "normality." "Enormity" has invaded the territory of "enormousness."

Aug. 26 2013 11:51 AM
Estelle from Brooklyn

I miss disinterested meaning having no personal interest as a disinterested judge versus an uninterested judge.

And I hate kid replacing child even in newscasts telling how many "kids were killed." My teachers always said kid is a young goat. It always sounds like slang to me.

Aug. 26 2013 11:50 AM
Phoebe from brooklyn

Virtual gets misused routinely.

Aug. 26 2013 11:49 AM

"I could care less."

Aug. 26 2013 11:49 AM
Edward from NJ

If you want to upset comedy people, just call a stand-up routine a "sketch".

Aug. 26 2013 11:49 AM
Edward from NJ

If you get upset about literally used as figuratively, you need to look up hyperbole.

Aug. 26 2013 11:47 AM

Why not for 50 years exclusively has had the same meaning as primarily to some mandarins

Aug. 26 2013 11:09 AM from Glendale, NY

There's a great cartoon on the difference between "literally" and "figuratively" last week (August 22nd) ... Zits by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman.

Here's the link:

I plan on sharing this with my students and other NYC public school teachers when we get back.

Aug. 26 2013 10:08 AM

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