Literally Unacceptable

August 21, 2013, 10:58 AM UTC

The Oxford English Dictionary might keep adding new meanings to words based on colloquial usage. But the majority of Britons take a more conservative view

Not so long ago, ‘literally’ meant “in a literal manner or sense; exactly” – according to the Oxford English Dictionary, anyway. Then, recently, the editors added a second usage: “used for emphasis while not being literally true.” For example: 'It's like, literally a million degrees in here.' 'It was literally raining cats and dogs.' 'In his youth, Michael Owen was literally a greyhound.'

After a media storm the OED claimed that "if enough people use a word in a particular way it will find its way into the dictionary,” but does that make it correct? Not for most of the British public, according to a new YouGov survey.

Indeed, the majority of British adults (52%) say it is generally unacceptable to use ‘literally’ merely ‘for emphasis or to express strong feeling.' Only 36% say the informal usage is ‘generally acceptable.’

18-24 year olds are less likely to object however: only 39% of them think using ‘literally’ just for emphasis is unacceptable compared to around 55% of their elder age groups.

And 37% of everyone surveyed say people who do correct for misuse ‘are right – it is important to try to and retain proper usage of the English language.’

Only 26% say those who straighten out the grammatically lax ‘are wrong – it is annoying to correct people like that as languages and meanings can change over time.’

The OED actually added the new meaning of ‘literally’ in 2011, but it went unnoticed until recently. As one OED editor said: "It seems to have literally slipped under the radar."

See the full poll results