A few days ago, a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook concerning the use of the word ‘literally’ in the increasingly popular figurative sense. The article unfortunately seems to have disappeared at the moment, but the gist of it was pointing out that most dictionaries have now appended this alternate meaning to the word’s definition, and explaining that this usage may have originated with, or was at least first recorded in, Frances Brooke’s The History of Emily Montague (published in 1769).
Naturally, this sparked a conversation on whether or not this sort of language development is acceptable. Prior to encountering this, I had no idea there was even a movement to gain legitimacy for this non-literal use of ‘literally’, as it’s kind of the butt of diction jokes everywhere, but there are apparently many who feel that rejecting it (or any other semantic shift) amounts to needless linguistic authoritarianism.
My own take on the matter was as such:
The evolution of language and words is a natural, inevitable thing, and in the general case it is something to be embraced. That said, stability is a necessity of language’s functionality, thus any given modification cannot be assumed to possess intrinsic merit.
Language is a tool of communication, of which clarity is an important aspect, and I should assert that preserving its ability to convey meaning is a not an unworthy goal, particularly in an instance such as this wherein the suggested secondary interpretation of a term, when used in the same context, implies something strictly antithetical to what the accepted definition would. This dilution of precision, while admittedly neither entirely untenable nor without precedent, is nevertheless customarily unfavorable.
(That the word was used in this sense a few centuries ago scarcely argues its virtue – words have been used improperly since words were first words, and most such misuses do not incur a change in their respective societal perceptions!)
But, I’ll concede to being guilty of a little linguistic snobbery. People will say what they will, and language will be thus, regardless of what may or may not be in its own best interest. (>^-‘)>
I’m curious to hear where others lie on the issue, though. Any thoughts to add?