1. without meaning, significance, purpose, or value; purposeless; insignificant: a meaningless reply; a meaningless existence.
2. some other definition because of rampant misuse.
I heard this come out of a TV during local coverage of this month’s Georgia ice storm: The crews were literally a Godsend for those who’ve been without power.
Which meant one of two things: Either this reporter buried the lead, and had literally found proof of the existence of God (and perhaps overlooked an opportunity for a rare, on-the-record interview with the Big Guy); or he had misused the word “literally.”
Pondering both possibilities, my head literally exploded.
Except — it hadn’t. Because it turns out that according to Google, Merriam-Webster and Macmillian dictionaries, “literally” no longer literally means “actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy” The word now includes the “informal” definition so often misused by TV reporters and anchors and children of all ages.
Dictionary.com includes a “usage note” in its definition, explaining how the word is “widely used as an intensifier” that “contradicts the earlier meaning.” In that spirit, it adds the crowd-pleasing “informal” definition: “in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.”
Which means that there is no longer a word in English that literally means “literally.” Except for the word that has a definition that literally contradicts itself.
Certainly, English has its quirks. Why does the word “invaluable” exist, with the same meaning as its linguistic sibling “valuable”?
But “literally” isn’t a quirk, it’s a cause. Its misuse / overuse has been the subject of parodies and overbearing, opinionated Bud Veazey usage memos. It new definition is linguistic capitulation, a Chamberlainesque concession to the higher power of the babble and hyperbole of the masses to which we now bow down and call “trending.”
I want to continue to insist on the correct usage of a word for which there is literally no synonym. The fact that there are now four or more references to which the misuser can point — and correctly tell me that I’m the one who’s wrong — is upsetting from my perch, literally atop a very high horse.
I want to be able to snicker when I hear, as I did during the anointment of Pope Francis, that “Catholics were literally glued to their TVs.” I did more than snicker when I heard that from an Atlanta TV reporter. My head literally exploded.
But then, I literally reassembled it. Turns out that an exploding head isn’t literally the end of the world.