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Literally Now Also Means Figuratively: A History of Controversial Dictionary Additions

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I will take any opportunity to use this Calvin & Hobbes strip. Image via Go Comics.

I am not language police, nor do I play a word cop on TV (mental note: pitch a pilot for a show about word cops). That said, I admit that I’ve been known to cringe over bad spelling or blatant misuse of some words in writing. I have a few pet peeves: chiefly, shortening of words when the full word isn’t even that long, and excessive use of hyperbole in non-dramatic situations. (I know, that’s totes ridic, but it’s THE absolute worst.) I’m not, however, going to insist that everyone use the Queen’s English, sentences and clauses stripped of any sense of modern exuberance. I’d like to continue being invited to friends’ parties and important life events.

Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure said, “Time changes all things: there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.” Over the decades, a lot of new terms have become part of our daily lexicon while some have faded into obscurity. The most recent additions to the Oxford Dictionary Online include such terms as “squee,” “srsly” and “jorts.” While the world of lexicography isn’t exactly a hotbed of drama and intrigue, it’s still seen its share of controversy. When Webster’s New International Dictionary, Third Edition was published in 1961, its editor Philip Gove didn’t make too many friends over it. Gove not only expanded previous definitions, but he also introduced over 100,000 new entries to the dictionary, incorporating slang and providing context for word use. While some changes he made to the categorization and structure of the dictionary were drastic, he was mostly in the Saussure school of thought when he said, “The basic responsibility of a dictionary is to record language, not set its style.” Unfortunately, while he tried to build a reference volume that would reflect the cultural shifts in the usage of the English language, Gove was also pilloried for supposedly trying to destroy “every surviving influence that makes for the upholding of standards.”

Gove’s attempt at practical and objective documentation aside, the history of many modern words and their common use is pretty fascinating, regardless of how you might feel about them. Presented here for your edutainment (yes, that’s also an accepted term) is a small smattering of words, some surrounded in controversy, some just plain interesting. Let’s start with one of the most reviled culprits, “literally.”


1. in a literal manner or sense; exactly.
2. (informal) used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.


This secondary definition for the word tiptoed into online versions of such dictionaries as the OED and Merriam-Webster a couple of years ago. Taking its place alongside words like “fast” or “awful,” “literally” has now become an auto-antonym – a word with two meanings that contradict each other. But while there has been quite a bit of clamoring over this recently, many esteemed figures of literature have been using the word as hyperbole for several centuries. “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet,” wrote James Joyce in Dubliners. Or how about Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov’s poem-novel:

"All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs."

The word’s use as an “intensifier” goes back even further than modern fiction. There’s something to be said for the power “literally” has in continuing to stir up debate, even after a visit from the Cautionary Ghost.

adjective & adverb
1. regardless

The word is considered non-standard – basically, its existence is acknowledged, but still not welcomed with open arms. It’s one of those words that’s like your rude, jocular third cousin at the family reunion. Picking through the canapés and mingling with the guests, his or her presence is accepted very begrudgingly and everyone averts their eyes when it’s time for a drunken, fully clothed belly flop into the pool. Irregardless, cousin continues being invited to all social functions.

It might seem like a lazy term that has popped up fairly recently, but its usage actually can be traced to at least 1912, but perhaps even earlier. Should we keep using it? This is one of those instances where I would personally err on the side of caution and simply say “regardless.” It’s a couple of letters shorter, but it still means the exact same thing. On the other hand, I won’t begrudge you if you think it’s a perfectly cromulent word.

1. a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.

The word gained popularity in 1991 when Douglas Coupland included it in his satirical novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, but its appearance in print goes further back than that. In 1986, sociologist Amitai Etzioni published an article titled "The Fast-Food Factories: McJobs are Bad for Kids," in which he thoroughly criticized places like McDonald's, KFC and the like as detrimental to the growth and education of teenagers they employed. Etzioni described the fast-food chains as “breeding grounds for robots working for yesterday's assembly lines, not tomorrow's high-tech posts.” Going to need some ice for that burn. Mostly due to Coupland’s popularization of the word, though, McDonald's complained, indignant at the disrespect aimed at the company by associating it with such a negative definition. It’s hard to feel sympathetic to a multi-million dollar corporation when they do stuff like this, however.

1. a person who follows the latest trends and fashions.

Methinks it’s time for an expanded definition for the word “hipster.” Considering how often it’s trotted out in articles, conversations and lists on Buzzfeed, it could be defined as “member of an arbitrarily categorized group of individuals or trends that journalists don’t quite know how to tackle but feel like they should still say something about it, right?” In his piece on Slate, Luke O’Neil points out that the word has become “a choose-your-own-ending story where every option leads to the same page, you standing there in some silly hat or other.” The etymology of the word itself is almost as much debated and divergent as the definition of a hipster. Due in part to the research David Dalby, a scholar of West African languages, some credence has been given to the word “hip/hep” deriving from the Wolof “hipi” – “to open one’s eyes.” The first written definition of “hipster” appeared on Harry Gibson’s 1944 album “Boogie Woogie in Blue,” defined as “characters who like hot jazz.” Maybe rigorously researching the etymology of the word can be the next cool thing?


Well, that was fun. I’d like to give a shout out to two more words: avocado and dord. Avocado, because I couldn’t help but giggle like a teenager when I first found out that the fruit gets its name from āhuacatl, the Nahuan word for “testicles.” Dord, on the other hand, is the little word that could. It never should have existed, but it made its way into the dictionary regardless and stuck around for a number of years. You can be a word if you like, dord, go on.

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