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It's 'Literally' In The Dictionary


We're going to take a moment now to talk about a word - yep, one word. Maybe you use it all the time or maybe you feel people use the word and it drives you up the wall. I'm talking about the word literally.


MARTIN: Let's get one thing out of the way quickly. According to Webster's, the NPR dictionary of record, the original definition of literally is - OK. Here it is. Literally, adverb: In a literal sense or manner. Actually. So, think of it as the opposite of figuratively. But maybe you've turned on a TV in last few decades, watched a show like "Seinfeld" or "Parks and Recreation" and that's not quite the usage you hear.



MARTIN: So, it's a little bit off-definition. Like a lot of people, Vice President Joe Biden loves using literally this way. Here he is at the Democratic National Convention last fall.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: In the first days - literally the first day...literally stood...literally...but literally making...we're literally...not figuratively, as literally in your case...and it literally amazes me they don't understand that.


MARTIN: The word is polarizing. So, we did a completely unscientific survey at our office.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: I despise the world literally. I despise the way it is used.

MARTIN: I didn't even have to bait you on this. You just went.

INSKEEP: No, no, no. it was literally an outrage.

MARTIN: Can you use the word in sentence?

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: The government of Venezuela has said they are literally not going to lose Hugo Chavez. They're going to embalm him. And he'll be sitting in a glass box somewhere for the people to go look at.

MARTIN: So, I think that's correct.

WERTHEIMER: I should hope after 40 years of broadcasting.

MARTIN: You never use that word that way.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: I try not to do it on air.

MARTIN: You're aware of it. You're conscious of it.

CORNISH: Yes, yes, yes, because it's a thing.

MARTIN: Even - see - you saying it's a thing is a thing.


MARTIN: That's Steve, Linda and Audie. As for me, well I know it's wrong but I think it's just satisfying to say it that way, even if other people don't like it.

DAVID HAGLUND: That's what you sometimes what you hear from people. They say you're using it wrong.

MARTIN: David Haglund is an editor at Slate magazine.

HAGLUND: And it's true that people are using it in a way that is different from its original meaning. But we do that with all kinds of words. I mean, the most relevant comparison is the word really. People say, oh, I'm really starving, They're not really.

MARTIN: And some dictionaries have even adopted the common usage of literally as a second definition. And that bugs some people.

HAGLUND: These things change and we don't have that much control over them. You hear people using language in a way that you don't like and I think some part of you knows that there's not really anything you can do about that. And that's frustrating. And so people start shouting about it.

MARTIN: So, love it or hate it, can we just call a literally truce?


MARTIN: This is literally NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.