“The world is literally coming to an end.”
“The sky is literally falling.”
“The oceans are literally boiling, because this is literally the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone in history ever.”
According to both the Cambridge and Merriam-Webster dictionaries, “literally” literally no long means “literally.” And the definition has officially been amended to include the word as a synonym for “figuratively.”
It joins the ranks of the English auto-antonym, or words with opposite meanings; like “to cleave” which can mean both “to cling” and “to split,” and “inflammable” which means both “flammable” and “not flammable” (what a language).
Pack it in, grammar Nazis. Much like the real Nazis, you’ve lost the war.
How is this possible? Doesn’t the King of English get to wave his magic Strunk & White style manual and declare the definition fixed in stone forever?
Words actually change meanings all the time. And despite what Ms. Struthers taught you in 3rd grade English class, there’s really no such thing as a “fake” word. There was resistance when Shakespeare added words like “baggage” and “remorseless” and “cowabunga, dude!” (citation needed).
As long as you’re being understood, it counts.
Yes, this means in a hundred years, it’s entirely possible stuffy college professors will be using phrases like “sup, dawg” or “YOLO” without an ounce of irony or shame. And that’s okay; language is about communication, not winning a grammar correctness game that no one is playing.
And 2014 has had quite a few hard-to-chew-on words of its own. Literally.
For instance, “Bae.” What is a bae? Is it a misspelling of “babe”? Is it the place upon whose dock Otis Redding is sitting?
According to the ever-reliable Urban Dictionary, Bae is a shortening of the word “babe” and an acronym for “before anyone else.” Why the word “babe” needs shortening is another question, but I guess we’re just lucky they didn’t shorten it to “abe.” That would be even more confusing.
Another word that dominated in 2014 was “vape,” which has been declared Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. Hot on the heels of last year’s big word, “selfie,” vape continues the trend of the Oxford dictionary’s attempt to make Scrabble a whole lot easier.
A “vape” is not an underdeveloped vampire, nor a kind of Velcro tape (which is a brilliant idea that I’m totally going to make). It’s one of those magic non-lung destroying electronic cigarette things that might also actually destroy your lungs. It can also be used as a verb, as in “I stopped smoking and started vaping and now I’m going to be slightly healthier maybe.”
And then there’s “Belfie” – a variation on the selfie focusing on the, ahem, backside, which has yet to be added to the dictionary. So please, start using this word constantly. For the good of the future.
Other recent additions to the English language include “click bait” (internet content that tries to get your attention), “mansplain” (when a man tries to explain why you shouldn’t be offended by the terrible things men sometimes do), and “death spiral” (an out of control airplane and/or Charlie Sheen’s career). It goes without saying that you never want to see all three terms in the same Google search result.
It’s tempting to judge all the texters, tweeters, and trolls who are “destroying” English with their “wrongness” in this linguistic evolution. But it’s not like English wasn’t already a big mess. Words like “Y’all”and the endless variations on hoagie/sub/hero sandwiches section up this country like a puzzle.
Forget the gulf between Americans and the British – Americans can’t even sound like other Americans most of the time. Not to mention, some of these “fake” words we eye-roll at serve useful functions. For example, y’all. A major defect of the English language is the lack of an impersonal plural pronoun. We use “you” to refer to both a single murderer and a group of murderers, leading to enormous confusion when we’re trying to ask them not to murder us. “Y’all” is a far superior alternative.
So if you’re ever furrowing your brow trying to decipher all this weird Clockwork Orange-style slang the kids are using, please try to understand: it wasn’t so very long ago that terms like “24/7” and “airhead” and “chill out” were bizarre new street lingo.
It’s time that separates the short-lived fad words from those worthy of enshrinement in the dictionary. Time and usage. If people say it enough, it magically becomes real.
And that is literally no big deal.
(Featured image components courtesy of Eric Barfoed and digitaltrends)