Figuratively can literally rest in peace.
Literally means – or meant, some years ago – that what was discussed was literally true. It was a statement of fact, not a word picture. So Kylian Mbappe didn’t literally place the French soccer team on his back en route to the winning the World Cup, which would be impossible if funny to watch during the attempt. His goal-scoring might have figuratively carried the team, figuratively being the opposite of literally. A figure of speech or the literal truth. One or the other, ne’er the twain shall meet.
But then a funny thing happened. People increasingly used literally as a way of exaggerating something: An obnoxious wedding guest literally ate all the cake at the reception; a hoarder literally had to have every pair of Jimmy Choo shoes ever made. Over time, the exaggerated character of the word became less important; people who did not understand the nuance of literal v. figurative used literal so often when they meant figurative that literal now means both something that is literally true and something that is figuratively true. Ultimately, figurative seems doomed to become an archaic word … the old-fashioned, stuffy way of saying literally.
The standard excuse is because dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. They tell us how the language is being used as opposed to how it ought to be used. So if enough people use literal when they mean figurative, literal takes on a new meaning. That’s true as far as it goes, but it misses the effect of technology.
Because about the time literal started to storm the figurative ramparts, word processors took over for all other forms of written communication. In the 1980s, using a word processor generally meant WordPerfect. That software was the early gold standard, having come into widespread use about the time MS-DOS became the standard operating system. Learning WordPerfect was a little like learning to operate a typesetting machine; all the commands for formatting text, paragraphs, fonts, and etc. were applied through keyboard shortcuts, and a little cardboard or plastic shield with the most popular shortcuts color-coded and listed in table format was pretty much required. At least if you were an academic, lawyer, or someone in another profession that required precise, consistent formatting.
You almost had to be a professional to use WordPerfect because in 1992 it wholesaled for $168. Five years later, beat down by Microsoft’s near-monopoly of the PC market, word processing programs sold at wholesale for an average of $46. It was the start of making desktop publishing a truly democratic, affordable thing. And in hindsight, that was the point at which the dictionary pretty much lost its handle on the English language.
As professionals, most WordPerfect users were decent spellers. Or their editors were, or someone in the production chain. Even the first decade or so of bundled, ubiquitous spell-checkers required users to go manually select “spell check” as a process (in the case of WordPerfect, red F2, where red = Ctrl). An entire cadre of newbie newspaper reporters woke up from nightmares with their editors’ voices echoing “Did you spell-check this, Nick? I shouldn’t be running the first spell-check on a story, Nick …”* Somebody was in charge of the process; thinking was involved, not just algorithms.
Eventually, word processing programs started automatically checking spelling (red underlines) and grammar (blue underlines) as you typed. Whereas Word being made standard was the start of the slippery slope for dictionaries, auto-correct was the point where they were strapped to a wooden toboggan on a World Cup downhill course.
Since then, editing for spelling mistakes changed. Morphed. Mutated. It used to be you had to watch out for gross errors, surnames spelled in multiple ways in the same document, and the unholy trinity of they’re / their / there that comprised the foundation of so many smug lectures by copy editors and English 101 professors (we know who we are). But with automatic spell-checking, actual misspellings have taken second place to homophones, words (like they’re / there / their) that sound the same but have different meanings. Because Word and sloppy writers are less concerned that exactly the right word is chosen than that the word on the page is correctly spelled. (In the early days of the Iraq War, seeing a war on tremors wasn’t unheard of and once, memorably, I caught a War on Tea Rooms before it went to print. But enough of war stories, figurative or literal … .)
The one I’m seeing the most recently is defuse / diffuse. According to the dictionary, defuse still means to disarm or reduce potential hazard or tension and diffuse still means to spread thinly over a wide area or range, but having seen tense situations diffused in dozens of publications in the past several months, it is inevitable that dictionaries will soon include the definition for defuse as an alternative usage for diffuse. Because that’s what dictionaries are for … to tell us how words are used, not how they should be used, and if most native English speakers can’t tell one from the other, why should a reference book
insist on it? Isn’t understanding more important than adherence?
With machines correcting – or compounding – human error, the trend to a less-structured, more variable language is undoubtedly going to increase. Things fall apart, the centre (center?) cannot hold; mere typos are unloosed upon the world. Entropy increases in physics; why should language be any different?
In some respects, we’re just returning to our roots as a language. The OED credits one Robert Cawdrey, clergyman, as having written the first true dictionary of the English
language, in 1605, the same year Wm. Shakespeare wrote King Lear. Shake-spear / Shakespere / Shakspear was a notoriously rotten speller, writing his own name with some two dozen variations. So if you hear someone bemoaning the dumbing-down of the language by borderline illiterates who can’t spell diffuse or know literally from Adam, just tell them you think we should be taking our example not from Cawdrey — who undoubtedly always spelled his name the same — but from Shakspere. Shackspeare. What’s his name. The famous writer guy with the funky collar and the (literally) big forehead.
* Name of fictional crappy reporter may have been chosen at random.