Future of the OED
January 26, 2014 7:12 AM   Subscribe

The new chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary discusses its future. "My idea about dictionaries is that, in a way, their time has come. People need filters much more than they did in the past."
posted by anothermug (50 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
However, he is hardly the tweedy scholar of old, referring with satisfaction to having drafted the entry for “phat”.

Hahaha
posted by Quilford at 7:49 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


That entry is way cool, daddy-o.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 7:51 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]


And the OED shot itself in the ass, as far as I'm concerned, with the 'literally' incident.

Pointing out that Twain did it too doesn't do much to change my mind, as much as I admire the guy.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 7:54 AM on January 26


It shot itself in the ass by including an entry noting the way people actually use a word rather than the way you would prefer that they use it?
posted by kyrademon at 7:57 AM on January 26 [11 favorites]


And the OED shot itself in the ass, as far as I'm concerned, with the 'literally' incident.

The OED is a serious work of scholarship intended to document how people use language in the real world. Descriptive, scientific study of language is the purpose of the field of academic linguistics; classifying live usages as "right" and "wrong" is completely outside its purview.

There's no controversy about the OED entry for literally among linguists.
posted by my favorite orange at 7:58 AM on January 26 [39 favorites]


Haters gonna hate. Literally! Like, literally literally! OMG
posted by Quilford at 8:00 AM on January 26 [9 favorites]


As an academic (formerly) and layperson (presently), I count myself among the descriptivists rather than the prescriptivists. For merely documenting usage, this is noncontroversial but I'm not so sure about reference materials which are not used strictly by linguists.

That is, what do serious descriptivists do about words that are snared by malapropisms?

When people who do not understand the meaning of "allusion" (for example) and misuse "illusion" word to mean "allusion", will descriptive references list "reference to an external text" under the word "illusion"?

There are other trickier and more common malapropisms, for example the use of the word "enormity" to mean "greatness of size and scope" when its earlier definitions mean "great evil".

How do lexicographers measure the prevalence of such usages and by which protocols do they determine when a misused word will gain a formerly non-standard meaning?
posted by mistersquid at 8:23 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]


It shot itself in the ass by including an entry noting the way people actually use a word rather than the way you would prefer that they use it?

And:

The OED is a serious work of scholarship intended to document how people use language in the real world. Descriptive, scientific study of language is the purpose of the field of academic linguistics; classifying live usages as "right" and "wrong" is completely outside its purview.

Of course not. It shot itself in the ass by including an entry deeming an obvious misuse of a word as a correct use.

And it's rather hard to believe that ""right"" and ""wrong"" are "completely outside its purview."

Bah! Bah!

I mean, far be it from me to tell actual linguists and lexicographers to do their jobs--that would be idiotically presumptuous. I haven't given this more than ten minute's thought in my life. You guys are probably right.

But if that's what's up, then we're going to have to make the definitions of 'sit' and 'set', the same--using them interchangeably is way, way more common than using 'literally' to mean not literally. Same goes for 'lie' and 'lay,' and for 'who' 'which' and 'that,' and for 'to', 'too', and 'two,' and for 'climatic' and 'climactic,' 'nauseous' and 'nauseated,' 'refute' and 'rebut,' 'uninterested' and 'disinterested,' and so on. I suppose we might say: where the best explanation for the confusion is spelling error, we don't record the change...but that won't cover all the cases.

I guess it seems to me that, when it's clear that what's involved is a violation of the core meaning of the word, we resist the change unless it becomes irresistible.

Going down this road actually makes the very idea of recording usage as a dictionary does a questionable enterprise. What we need is something more like statistical breakdowns of usage. like 'W' is used 90% of the time to mean A, 3% to mean B, 1% to mean C, 0.03% to mean D...etc. And since every word has probably been (mis)used in thousands of ways...that's going to be a really weird dictionary...

But I'm just playing devil's advocate here, really.

[damn, mrsquid just beat me to the same point]
posted by Fists O'Fury at 8:26 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]


'sit' and 'set'

I don't know how careful most writers are to keep those two separated, but in spoken American English they are almost homophones and no one is going to notice if you say "set that over here" or "sit that over here." (Though there are some clear regionalisms with those words as well, interestingly.) There are a number of word pairs like that in English whose uses are this point only distinguished in print, and always become a part of dictionary discussions like this one.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:50 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


The OED supports its definitions with textual examples, which is how it determines usage. Language change is constant. What you think of misuse or a linguistic error might be the standard usage in twenty years. The OED is an incredible project because it records not just word meanings, but word histories, which makes reading older texts and understanding them both easier and more rewarding.
posted by mmmbacon at 8:51 AM on January 26 [7 favorites]


(I am in love with the OED)
posted by mmmbacon at 8:54 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Castigating academic dictionaries for accurately reflecting language use veers awfully close to "who are you going to believe, me or your own lyin' eyes?"

...

When people who do not understand the meaning of "allusion" (for example) and misuse "illusion" word to mean "allusion", will descriptive references list "reference to an external text" under the word "illusion"?

If a critical mass of people no longer distinguish between "allusion" and "illusion", then they might, but not until then. I don't know of any dictionaries that would conflate the terms - do you?

I understand what it's like to be frustrated not only with language change, but also with that moment at which editors stop preventing certain forms of it. Part of me wishes that "comprise" was still only the inverse of "compose", and that nobody had ever said "from whence" instead of just "whence". Taking off my descriptivist hat, I hate it when differences are taken away from a language - what's the point of "comprise" if people are going to use it to mean "compose"? What's the point of "whence" if people are going to use it to mean "where"?

However, the world marches on. If I were putting together an academic dictionary, I would only be lying if I were to say that "comprise" only ever meant "to include exclusively".

...

I guess it seems to me that, when it's clear that what's involved is a violation of the core meaning of the word, we resist the change unless it becomes irresistible.

I understand what you're saying, but the "we" in question ought to mean the editors of the world, and not the academic dictionaries. It should not ever be the goal of dictionaries to lie about language use, in order to make editors' jobs easier.

Going down this road actually makes the very idea of recording usage as a dictionary does a questionable enterprise. What we need is something more like statistical breakdowns of usage. like 'W' is used 90% of the time to mean A, 3% to mean B, 1% to mean C, 0.03% to mean D...etc. And since every word has probably been (mis)used in thousands of ways...that's going to be a really weird dictionary...

Many dictionaries, style guides, etc. actually do break down definitions this way, just not with literal percentages!

Descriptivism does not mean ignoring formal, technical, contextually-determined, etc. usage. Linguists do not parachute into editors' offices, preventing them by force from correcting the use of "beg the question". Indeed, that would be as silly as complaining that dictionaries are defining words all wrong! :)

No, instead linguists observe the bigger picture. By and large, they mean to be disinterested (but not uninterested) observers of how language is actually used in the real world. This necessarily entails noting formal vs. informal usage, just as this also necessarily entails not pretending that languages never change.

...

The OED is a wonderful resource, but they need to figure out their pricing. $295 may be a drop in the bucket for an institution, or for a professional who literally requires the OED for their work, but it places the OED outside of the reach of anybody outside of those categories. Easy for me to say, of course. I wish the OED could be a public works project, free to the world, but then again, I wish for a lot of things.

That said, I note with some bemusement (but no amusement) that $295 for a year's worth of access to the OED is still well under how much it costs to access Wexis for a month.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:55 AM on January 26 [4 favorites]


Of course not. It shot itself in the ass by including an entry deeming an obvious misuse of a word as a correct use.

It did not do this.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:59 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]


I don't understand how "literally" became grammatically controversial in the first place. I can say "this is without any exaggeration whatsoever the most delicious chocolate chip cookie that has ever existed." I can say, "in all seriousness, no other chocolate chip cookie has ever been its equal." I can say, "I mean it. The laws of nature, of man and of Almighty God decree that this is the best chocolate chip cookie in this life or any other."

But if I say "you literally have to try this," all of a sudden we're reaching for the dictionaries.

What's up with that? I don't think it's likely that most people who use "literally" that way are unaware of its literal meaning -- "literal" is not an obscure word. (Would they struggle to understand the way I just used the word, for example?) And we say the opposite of what we mean all the time. That's not just grammatically correct, it's doubleplusgood for the expressivity of our language.

Maybe it's just the irony of using "literally" in a figurative sense that makes people want to carve out a grammatical exception to ban its use? If so, that was always a doomed project. It's just too rhetorically useful to use a word that means "without exaggeration" to underline the magnitude of your hyperbole. If the word "literally" had never been invented until today, it would be used in the supposedly incorrect sense tomorrow.
posted by jhc at 9:14 AM on January 26 [16 favorites]


Relevant1: A 24-year old edition of the OED was recently used to justify bulk collection of telephone metadata.

1 Standing alone, “relevant” is a broad term that connotes anything “[b]earing upon, connected with, [or] pertinent to” a specified subject matter. 13 Oxford English Dictionary 561 (2d ed. 1989).
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:15 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Haters gonna hate.
Prescriptivists are going to prescribe. Descriptivists gonna descriptivate.
posted by Flunkie at 9:27 AM on January 26 [6 favorites]


jhc, I think the controvery about literally is its use as documented for years by Private Eye:

Laura Moore: “There was literally two heads on me, I had literally two heads...”

Mark Pougatch: “He [Usain Bolt] has hordes of South Koreans quite literally on a piece of string.”

Ulrika Jonsson: “In Sweden they literally split the child half to spend time with each parent.”
However I'm in the camp that says language is 'open source' - its use changes all the time, and so arguments about right and wrong usage completely miss the point. 200 years ago I would have said "My house is painting" instead of "My house is being painted". The OEDs job is to record actual usage.
posted by memebake at 9:29 AM on January 26


Since the future of the OED is tied to the future of the English language -
Wikipedia: List of countries by English-speaking population
I was surprised to find that a much smaller percentage of Indians are English-speakers and English-users than I'd though, leaving USA NUMBER ONE!!!, a much greater percentage of Pakistanis are English-speakers than I'd thought, and I'm surprised to find that there are nearly as many English-speakers in Germany as there are in the UK. (Though of course there are many German editors of Wikipedia. Hmm...)
posted by XMLicious at 9:40 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


And the OED shot itself in the ass, as far as I'm concerned, with the 'literally' incident.

How does one shoot oneself in the ass? Careful use of ricochets?
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:06 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


jhc: In the other examples it's clear you're engaging in hyperbole to make a point; with literally on the other hand it's not clear if you're using a deliberate exaggeration or if you're just repeating a misuse of the word that's become common currency. Also, most of the hate for literally that I've seen comes when it's used to add emphasis to figurative or metaphorical descriptions of actions, states, or events. Here's David Cross explaining it from a 2002 comedy album.
posted by Grimgrin at 10:13 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Seriously? If I say "This is literally the most delicious chocolate chip cookie that has ever existed", it wouldn't be clear to you whether I was engaging in hyperbole to make a point or not?
posted by Flunkie at 10:17 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Celsius1414, don't you have elbows? Are you the alien without elbows from the Sesame Street lesson about cooperation? Do you need a friend to help you with nectarines and gunshot wounding?
posted by biffa at 10:24 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


The pricing is a serious issue. I have the 20-Volume edition, the shrunken one (20 volumes with reduced font size), and the CD version but this doesn't give me access to the online version. Online access is crazy expensive. But there are options for us:

1) If you are a student your school probably does have online access to the OED which means you do too.

2) Your local public library might also have access. Georgia libraries do not. The Knoxville TN library does. For example.

3) It just so happens that my Georgia library card # is the exact same as one in use in another library system that does have access to the OED thus giving me free online access. Better to be lucky...

4) Get some wealthy benefactors to buy the OED, set up a huge trust fund, and make it free to access for everyone forever. The OED is the repository of the English language therefore we all need free access to it (and not just physically at your local library).

By the way, online access is a must. Not only do you have access to the changes going into the 3rd edition but the historical thesaurus is well-integrated (of which I own a physical copy as well -- it's awesome!). Basically accessing the OED online is always my first choice.

Also, literally every minute of every day someone on reddit complains about the "figurative" use of "literally" and receives literally 10,000 upvotes and 5 instances of Gold. Literally. The OED, like most of the big dictionaries, is a descriptive one. If a significant number of people use literally in the figurative sense, especially in written text, then it must be recorded in the OED otherwise the OED is failing to do its job. Being in the OED is not a blessing from God which makes something an official English word forever chiseled into God's own stone tables of Valid English Words, it is just a recognition that a lot of people use it in a certain way. For some reason people operate under the mistaken idea that the OED, and other dictionaries, are authoritative sources on languages with the power to say something is or isn't a word and has or does not have a certain meaning. Dictionaries do not operate like that -- they merely describe.

There are prescriptive dictionaries and style guides (which often do both) which you are free to follow (or make your own, as I've done) that will recommend or proscribe against using literally in the figurative sense. That's what they do; that's not what the OED and M-W do.
posted by bfootdav at 10:27 AM on January 26 [4 favorites]


When people who do not understand the meaning of "allusion" (for example) and misuse "illusion" word to mean "allusion", will descriptive references list "reference to an external text" under the word "illusion"?

If a critical mass of people no longer distinguish between "allusion" and "illusion", then they might, but not until then. I don't know of any dictionaries that would conflate the terms - do you?
Not yet, but that's part of my question.

That is, most people do not only have descriptivist or prescriptivist opinions though they may tend toward one or the other. Taken to its logical conclusion, there is likely some measure of prevalence that lexicographers use to decide when a misuse of a word becomes a "misuse" of a word and when that "misuse" becomes an acknowledged and accepted use.

The question I highlight ignores the one I posed and suggests my question is merely "academic", but it is not.

The question of when prevalence shifts an expression from misuse to acknowledged use is important to understand the descriptivist/prescriptivist continuum.
posted by mistersquid at 10:30 AM on January 26


Grimgrin: with literally on the other hand it's not clear if you're using a deliberate exaggeration or if you're just repeating a misuse of the word that's become common currency.

First off, it's not a "misuse of the word". There is no authority anywhere that gets to determine proper usage for any word. If people use a word in a certain manner and other people understand it then it's all good. People do often make mistakes (meaning one word and saying another or mispronounce things etc.) but in every case of "literally in the figurative sense" I've seen it's very clear that the writer knows exactly what they are doing.

Anyway, here are some examples that I think help illustrate that it's not as big a problem as you might think it is.

1) I was so hungry I literally ate an entire pizza by myself.

2) I was so hungry I literally ate 10 billion pizzas by myself.

3) I was so hungry I literally ate 5 pizzas by myself.

In #1 clearly literally is being used in the non-figurative sense. It is quite conceivable for a hungry person to eat an entire pizza by themself. #2 is clearly figurative as it is physically impossible to eat 5 billion pizzas much less actually assemble 5 billion pizzas in one place.

But what of #3? If the pizzas are smallish it is conceivable that someone could eat five of them right? Or might it be an exaggeration? Confusion! But here's the beautiful part -- it doesn't matter! I was hungry and I ate a lot pizza! That's all that matters. You still understand all the important bits of my sentence and its only the trivial details like the number of pizzas (the brand, toppings, temperature, slicing pattern, etc.) that is unclear.

If as a writer it's important to me that the reader understand me clearly then I might want to avoid situations like #3 but it ain't the end of the world.

If for some reason it is a life-or-death situation then the writer is going to avoid any and all ambiguities anyway so again, not much of a problem.
posted by bfootdav at 10:40 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


BUT I NEED TO KNOW EXACTLY HOW MANY PIZZAS
posted by Flunkie at 10:43 AM on January 26 [6 favorites]


literally every minute of every day someone on reddit complains about the "figurative" use of "literally" and receives literally 10,000 upvotes and 5 instances of Gold. Literally.

This whole dynamic is even funnier because it so often entails the wannabe-pedant having a very loose and imprecise idea of what "figurative" means. It seems to be lost on Internet grammarian peevers that it isn't just a synonym for "non-literal" but actually a name for a specific kind of non-literal language. And I can't see how the non-literal use of "literally" as an intensifier actually is figurative in the strict sense at all; it implies no metaphor or figure.
posted by RogerB at 11:23 AM on January 26


And I can't see how the non-literal use of "literally" as an intensifier actually is figurative in the strict sense at all

Exactly. I've had this debate so many times that I don't even bother arguing that "literally" is being used as an intensifier for a statement that is already not meant to be taken literally ("I ate five billion pizzas" is not a statement of literal truth and adding "literally" to it just intensifies the meaning). It's easier to just get on to the bigger points concerning dictionaries, the nature of language, that natural human languages are not computer programming languages, and so on.
posted by bfootdav at 11:34 AM on January 26


classifying live usages as "right" and "wrong" is completely outside its purview

This is really not the case at all. If a given usage is likely to be perceived as informal, nonstandard, dialectal, or "wrong" in formal written English then it's completely within the dictionary's purview to document that: it has to describe the prescribers, too, as part of its picture of the current state of the language. Opposition to prescriptive language-peeving is of course a fine stance, but it's still very much part of the dictionary's job to document and to communicate the current state of language peeves — that's just not its only job, nor what dictates inclusion/exclusion. It can, does, and should document what's perceived as "wrong," without decreeing from on high that "wrong" usages really are wrong.
posted by RogerB at 11:45 AM on January 26


So, just to be clear, the Oxford definition of "literally" is currently:

"1. in a literal manner or sense; exactly ... 1.1 informal: used for emphasis while not being literally true ... Usage: In its standard use literally means ‘in a literal sense, as opposed to a non-literal or exaggerated sense’ ... In recent years an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in non-literal contexts, for added effect ... This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread."

So, not only does the "literal" definition of literally still exist -- no one lit it on fire or anything -- but the (at present) informal one is marked as informal and further noted as such in the commentary on usage.

This is what people are getting fussed about? Seriously?
posted by kyrademon at 11:59 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]


That's not the OED definition, kyrademon. That's oxforddictionaries.com, which is an entirely different dictionary. But your point stands, of course; the actual OED has more or less the same sort of thing.

Of course, the actual OED also contains the literal definition of "literal", which is, amusingly enough, not what the people who complain that "you must use 'literally' literally" think it is:
By or with regard to letters.
Example:
1584 R. Scot Discouerie Witchcraft xvi. iii. 474 One T. of Canturburie, whose name I will not litterallie discouer.
posted by Flunkie at 12:11 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]


> "That's oxforddictionaries.com, which is an entirely different dictionary."

Whoops, my bad. Sorry about that.

But yes, the OED appears to have a more or less similar entry (barring the fascinating difference you noted.)
posted by kyrademon at 12:24 PM on January 26


By the power of our Lord and Savior, I compel the presence of Languagehat!
posted by digitalprimate at 12:29 PM on January 26


I've always been annoyed by how expensive the OED is, but then I saw that it was a 20 volume work for about $1K. I mean, it's out of my price range, but those aren't thin volumes either, it's about $50 each, which is about what I'd expect a physical book that size to be.
posted by JHarris at 1:08 PM on January 26


In the past Amazon has run sales on the OED. I had it in my shopping cart for years and then one day I logged on and it came in at $350 with shipping. For the 20 volumes that is a bargain.
posted by bfootdav at 1:13 PM on January 26 [3 favorites]


I tend to use literally in its figurative sense, while I use figuratively more literally.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:27 PM on January 26


If I use "literally" figuratively, then am I using "literally" in literally the wrong way? Does this figuratively show the meaning of "literally"? And is the figurative meaning of "literally" more literally the meaning than the literal meaning?
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:31 PM on January 26


mistersquid: "How do lexicographers measure the prevalence of such usages and by which protocols do they determine when a misused word will gain a formerly non-standard meaning?"

With math and standards, instead of arbitrary opinion.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:38 PM on January 26


Amazon currently has the 20-volume OED for $380; the leather-bound version is nearly $6,000. As JHarris says, it really is a bargain: the entries aren't just definitions but contain examples of each word's use throughout history, categorised by each sense of the word. For instance, here are the quotations for what it calls the improper use of "literally" to "indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense":
1687 Dryden Hind & P. iii. 107 My daily bread is litt'rally implor'd.    
1708 Pope Let. to H. Cromwell 18 Mar., Euery day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same.
1761–2 Hume Hist. Eng. (1806) V. lxxi. 341 He had the singular fate of dying literally of hunger.
1769 Junius Lett. xxx. 137 What punishment has he suffered? Literally none.
1839 Miss Mitford in L'Estrange Life (1870) III. vii. 100 At the last I was incapable of correcting the proofs, literally fainting on the ground.
1863 F. A. Kemble Resid. in Georgia 105 For the last four years‥I literally coined money.
1887 I. R. Lady's Ranche Life Montana 76 The air is literally scented with them all.
1902 Daily Chron. 10 Dec. 7/2 A contemporary states that Kubelik has been ‘literally coining money’ in England.
1906 Westm. Gaz. 15 Nov. 2/1 Mr. Chamberlain literally bubbled over with gratitude.
1922 R. Macaulay Mystery at Geneva xiv. 72 The things ‘they’ say! They even say‥that ‘literally’ bears the same meaning as ‘metaphorically’ (‘she was literally a mother to him,’ they will say).
1960 V. Nabokov Invitation to Beheading iii. 31 And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell.
1973 Good Food Guide 176 ‘Crabs and lobsters are literally to be found crawling round the floor waiting for an order,’ reports an early nominator.

I note that the "proper" use of the word is only traced back to 1533, so from a modern perspective the "improper" usage of 1687 is very nearly as old.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:21 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]


Could someone with access to the current version of the OED paste their definition of "literally" here, please? :)
posted by crossoverman at 10:46 PM on January 26


dear google: please buy OED. and then give it away for everyone. thank you.
posted by el io at 12:48 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


The OED entry for literally is outside the paywall at the moment.
posted by Richard Holden at 1:50 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


Amazon currently has the 20-volume OED for $380; the leather-bound version is nearly $6,000.
Well, sort of. Unless I'm missing something, the $380 one is the Compact Edition. It contains the same contents as the 20 volume edition, but it is a single book that has tiny print. If I remember correctly, it fits the contents of nine normal pages onto a single page. It comes with a magnifying glass. It's pretty neat, but you should understand that you're not going to get 20 volumes with normal sized print.

And yes, you can get the 20 volume leather bound for $6,000, but you can get the 20 volume set for $840 with, I assume, no leather. Or, if you want, that plus the CD for $1,085.

If I am mistaken and you really can somehow get the 20 volume set (not the contents of the 20 volume set) for $380, please post a link, because I'd like to get it at that price.
posted by Flunkie at 5:08 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


dear google: please buy OED. and then give it away for everyone. thank you.

Pro Tip: If you have a library card from a major public or university library that subscribes, you may be able to log on to the OED web site with your library ID. (Hint: NYPL, for example, which is free for all NY state residents. Yes, really.)

(The only sad part of this fact is I don't look at my hardcover 2nd Ed volumes as much as I used to since realizing this.)

Fun game: always say literally in the style of Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe's character on Parks & Recreation).

If I am mistaken and you really can somehow get the 20 volume set (not the contents of the 20 volume set) for $380, please post a link, because I'd like to get it at that price.

The $380 price is for the compact ed. with its magnifying glass.
posted by aught at 8:45 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


> By the power of our Lord and Savior, I compel the presence of Languagehat!

Some early idiotic comments drove me away from the thread, but since I have been compelled, I will pop in to note that Joe in Australia appears to be citing the old (2nd ed.) OED; the online 3rd ed. has this definition and set of citations:
colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’. Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’).

1769 F. Brooke Hist. Emily Montague IV. ccxvii. 83 He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.
1801 Spirit of Farmers' Museum 262 He is, literally, made up of marechal powder, cravat, and bootees.
1825 J. Denniston Legends Galloway 99 Lady Kirkclaugh, who, literally worn to a shadow, died of a broken heart.
1863 F. A. Kemble Jrnl. Resid. Georgian Plantation 105 For the last four years..I literally coined money.
1876 ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Tom Sawyer ii. 20 And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.
1906 Westm. Gaz. 15 Nov. 2/1 Mr. Chamberlain literally bubbled over with gratitude.
1975 Chem. Week (Nexis) 26 Mar. 10 ‘They're literally throwing money at these programs,’ said a Ford Administration official.
2008 Herald-Times (Bloomington, Indiana) 22 Oct. a8/1 ‘OMG, I literally died when I found out!’ No, you figuratively died. Otherwise, you would not be around to relay your pointless anecdote.
I note with amusement that the latest citation records an instance of foolish peevery.

Also, I will take this opportunity to thank the various MeFites of Good Sense who have saved me time, effort, and angst by so thoroughly explaining what dictionaries are and how they work, as well as how pointless it is to rail against usages one happens for whatever reason not to prefer.
posted by languagehat at 8:59 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


The only time that "literally" used figuratively bothers me is when the person could potentially be being hyperbolic, but it's unclear from the context.

1) I was so hungry I literally ate an entire pizza by myself.

In #1 clearly literally is being used in the non-figurative sense. It is quite conceivable for a hungry person to eat an entire pizza


I mean, that's the thing! It is no longer in any way clear! Maybe they ate half a pizza, felt really full and grossed out, and are using "literally" as an intensifier, or to mean "figuratively". Who even knows any more!

It's not the end of the world, and I'm not really a prescriptivist, but I think it is possible to feel a slight amount of reasonable sadness at the increase in popularity of an expanded usage of a word eroding its precision somewhat. But whatever. There are other words, and plenty of them, so if something isn't obvious I will stick with my usual method of talking to people until things are clear.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:24 AM on January 27 [4 favorites]


Yes, the $380 price is for the micrographic edition. Blasted Amazon: it shows two formats for "The Oxford English Dictionary: 20 Volume Set by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner": one is the $6,000 leather-bound version, and the other is a "hardcover" edition at $380. It only mentions that the "hardcover" version is actually not twenty volumes when you click through.

You can actually buy second-hand copies of earlier editions for even less than $380, though, and they're worth considering.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:24 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


you can get the 20 volume set for $840 with, I assume, no leather.

Or you can wait until the University of Washington tosses theirs away and a nice librarian tells you when it's going to be near the dumpster and you can get it for $0 and sleep next to it every night.
posted by jessamyn at 7:01 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]


1825 J. Denniston Legends Galloway 99 Lady Kirkclaugh, who, literally worn to a shadow, died of a broken heart.

That's a funny one, because "died of a broken heart" is (presumably) also (not) literally true.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:00 PM on January 27


aught: "Fun game: always say literally in the style of Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe's character on Parks & Recreation)."

Sam Seaborn was Lowe's character on the West Wing. Lowe's character on Parks & Recreation is Chris Traeger.

So, you were literally incorrect.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:34 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]


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