Friday, August 16, 2013

Google Is Literally Killing Literally

Google's corporate motto is "don't be evil." But they did something so awful, so heinously wrong that they may as well have just killed and eaten the last unicorn on the planet.

If you type "define literally" into your Google search bar, this is what you'll see: "Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true, but is used for emphasis to express strong feeling."

I've got my own word that expresses strong feeling, and it ain't "literally."

See, the word you're thinking of, Google, does not mean "in a literal sense." It doesn't mean it actually happened. It doesn't mean "this is how things actually are."

The word you're thinking of is "figuratively." In fact, when I type "define figuratively," Google says "in a figurative sense. Not 'literally.' Anyone who uses that word to mean 'figuratively' should literally be hung by their thumbs and beaten with a dictionary."

I may be paraphrasing a bit.

In fact, when I typed in "define figurative," I saw, "Departing from a literal use of words; metaphorical." So what you did there was literally the dumbest thing you've ever done, Google, and I tried using Google Wave.

In other words, your own dictionary even says that's literally not what "literally" means.

Even the definition itself is contradictory. It acknowledges something that is not literally true.

This word, no thanks to Google, is becoming the exact opposite of what it should mean — it's becoming an auto-antonym, or self-contradictory word — and it all happened because people what don't know no better want to use something other than "it's like, O-M-G, really, really, really."

(Yes, I just said "what don't know no better." Do you see what this is doing to me?!)

"But it's in the dictionary!" whine the defenders of this incorrect usage. "That means it's okay to use." I've found that people who say this don't even pay attention to the dictionary, let alone own one. This is not a good defense.

Besides, that's not what a dictionary does. It's not the rule book that we're supposed to use to settle language disputes. The dictionary reflects current usage of the language. It tells us what people are already doing, not what they should be doing. The F-word is in the dictionary, but that doesn't mean I should say it in church.

The word "snoutfair" is also in the dictionary — it's a person with a handsome or attractive face — but I can't ever recall using it about anyone. "Man, that Salma Hayek sure is a snoutfair! I wonder if she's anyone's wonder-wench."

I also shouldn't call anyone a wonder-wench, even though it means "sweetheart."

Can you imagine if I had asked my wife out this way when we first started dating? "My dear, you are such a snoutfair. Would you be my wonder-wench?"

My point is, just because a word is in the dictionary doesn't mean we should use it. And now that the cries of "Common usage! Common usage!" are bellowing from the using-literally-wrong crowd, I am reluctantly forced to admit that I play the common usage card on occasion. (Editor's note: Actually, he plays it most of the time. He doesn't let us correct anything.)

After all, language is a malleable, ever-changing tapestry. Words get new meanings all the time. But not this one. Not here. Not like this. You cannot claim "common usage" just because a bunch of people started using a word incorrectly. A large mob may riot in the streets just because they feel like it, but that doesn't make them right.

The proper understanding and usage of this word is what separates us from animals. They can't think in metaphor or imagery, but we can. And when we use literally to mean "figuratively," only because we need filler words, we've lost a small part of our humanity. We're no better than the baboons who fling their own poo or call into sports talk radio shows.

Sadly, Google is only following what the other dictionaries started doing at the beginning of the year — recording what the ill-informed masses are doing, not saying what is correct. That means it's up to us, the people who literally want to preserve the purity of the word "literally." We have to correct them, and remind them that the word does not mean what they think it means.

Otherwise, feel free to call them atavistic masticating flapdoodles. It's in the dictionary.

The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and my other book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.


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  1. Warms my cockles to see the word "snoutfair" being used, particularly in connection to wonder-wench. I HAVE used that phrase - and I can't say that it got me very far.

    1. To be honest, I hadn't heard snoutfair until I found it in an article a year ago. Stumbled across the article in my Evernote on the day I was thinking of what to write about, and I realized I could put it in.

      Haven't heard "cockles" in a while though.


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