When I was in fifth grade, we had a student teacher in English. I’ll call her Mrs. N. I guess we were doing a lesson on literal versus figurative speech at some point that year and Mrs. N taught it. On the test at the end of the unit, there was a question to the effect of “What does the sentence ‘It’s raining cats and dogs?’ mean literally?” Now, I could tell that she really wanted to know what it meant figuratively, but that’s not what she asked, so I answered the question with “Cats and dogs are falling from the sky.”
After she’d graded them she returned them and I saw that she marked my answer wrong, with a comment that “the question was confusing.” I went up to her and pled my case – everybody else in the class answered the question she’d meant to ask, but I answered the question she actually asked. Figuratively, that sentence means “it’s raining very hard.” Therefore, the literal meaning is just what I wrote, and my answer shouldn’t have been marked wrong. I appealed to the real teacher and she told Mrs. N that I was correct.
I bring this up because the meaning word “literally” appears to have been eroded in recent years to the point where “literally” is no longer the literal definition of literal. I was reminded of this today when I read this story about Lara Logan:
Another guy who doesn't understand the definition of "literally." pic.twitter.com/NdLBFBJMB9
— Evan Hoffman (@EvanHoffman) May 6, 2014
As another data point, if you now look up the word literally in Google, it shows you a definition that includes the words “used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.” Yes, Google’s official definition indicates that “literally” means “not literally.”
This is just one of the many infractions I see on a daily basis that burn my retinas (another being ‘irregardless’).