Sabotage in Broad Daylight?

If you like being punched in the gut, type the word literally into Google, everyone’s favorite Internet search engine. Here is what you’ll find:

  1. In a literal manner or sense; exactly: “the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the traffic circle”.
  2. Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.

If you’re like most sticklers, definition 2 just ruined your day. When literally can mean “not literally true,” aren’t we living an Orwellian nightmare?

Since when is Google qualified to redefine words? A closer look reveals that Google’s self-appointed experts don’t even know the basics of capitalization or punctuation. For instance, why no capital T for “the driver…”?

Also, keep in mind that in America, periods never go outside quotation marks, and Google is an American company. What contortions would a Google spokesperson have to go through to defend the period placement at the end of definition 1?

Look at the wording of definition 2: “Used to acknowledge…” Does this strike you as a bit coy? Note the passive voice, which allows Google to duck the key question: “Used” by whom? Well, you hear it (ab)used a lot by education-challenged 18- to 49-year-olds who clearly have not bothered to learn what the word means. That’s why they say things like, “She literally threw me under the bus” and “I’m literally freezing to death.”

This is the very demographic that produced Google’s founders, and most of its employees. These literally-torturers are the people who make the company profitable. So Google “gives back” by legitimizing its best customers’ sabotage of this powerful word.

We language watchdogs may not like it, but for Google, showing solidarity with its contemporaries—even to the point of endorsing their ignorance—is a savvy business decision.

Posted on Saturday, August 24, 2013, at 3:39 pm

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14 Comments on Sabotage in Broad Daylight?

14 responses to “Sabotage in Broad Daylight?”

  1. Linda S. says:

    My favorite mental image inspired by the misuse of “literally” is a commercial for insurance.

    A woman says with a big smile, “When I saw the rates, I literally fell out of my chair.”

    Oh, how I wish they had filmed it that way. I would literally fall out of my chair, laughing.

  2. Connie A. says:

    Awesome editorial.
    Thank you.

  3. Meg D. says:

    With your strong feelings about the mis-use of the word “literally,” I thought you might enjoy this (it’s a comedy sketch titled Captain Literally): .

  4. Gordon H. says:

    Heard on NPR: “that’s literally a slippery slope.” I want to know where it is so I can go skiing on it.

  5. Jane L. says:

    Believe me, it will only get worse with each generation. My mother was a teacher in the Depression era, and at age 90 she decried the lack of knowledge of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and pronunciation among those who are the reporters, editors, and talking heads—all of whom are now arbiters of the English language.

    But, I’m an editor . . . and a diehard: I will not succumb to the practices that are rampant in print, radio, and television today.

    Thank you for your stance on this subject.

  6. A.R. says:

    Google does not define words – have a look at and note the comment there about Google.

  7. Lyrysa S. says:

    re: Literally
    Please see Merriam Webster recent article on “literally.” It has been in the dictionary in both senses since 1909.

    • Jane says:

      Merriam-Webster is by its own philosophy descriptive (they describe the language people are using), not prescriptive. American Heritage is a prescriptive dictionary, with a usage panel of scholars, and it would not acknowledge the corruption of “literally” without a brief essay explaining this decision. (Don’t expect American Heritage to do this anytime soon.)

  8. M.J. F. says:

    Oh, dear… that’s discouraging! We corresponded about just this a couple of months ago, and I hate to see it “legitimized” by Google.

    But wait… M-W says the same thing! I am really upset about those guys! Google may not know better, but the descendants of Noah Webster s/b ashamed!

    Definition of LITERALLY
    : in a literal sense or manner : actually
    : in effect : virtually
    See literally defined for English-language learners »
    See literally defined for kids »
    Usage Discussion of LITERALLY
    Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

    I don’t buy their hyperbole excuse, either!


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