Have you seen the TV show, American Dream Builders? It’s an NBC program in which several designers are assigned to a team and they compete against one another to design a house that wins the votes of a neighborhood council. I’m not sure what the big prize at the end is and I didn’t bother to look it up because the prize is not my point. I only mention the show because I want to tell you about something the host, Nate Berkus, said on an episode I watched the other night. Two things, actually. The first phrase came to pass when he walked into a newly-designed bedroom painted a drab gray color. He looked around and then said on camera to his colleagues, “This room literally bores me to tears.” Only he was wrong because, as I mentioned, he was being filmed and I can assuredly say that not a single tear rolled down his face as he spoke those words. By definition, the word ‘literally’ means to convey an actual, exact occurrence or sentiment.
Or does it?
Apparently not anymore. Did you know that several online sources have updated the word ‘literally’ to also now be used to convey strong emotion or emphasis while not literally being true? Did you catch that? Basically they’re saying that the opposite definition of ‘literally’ now can be encompassed in the updated definition of the word. Why? Because a large portion of the population has so frequently misused the word that they decided it would just be easier to change the definition.
As a lover of the English language, I can’t say that the updated definition thrills me. I’m a person who strongly believes that words matter. Words have the power to heal broken hearts, inspire armies, boost morale and crumble entire governments. It serves us well to carefully choose the right—most accurate—words for any given situation.
Later in that same episode, Mr. Berkus had to send one of his three favorite contestants home from the competition. Before he made the decision, he said, “This is literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Personally, I can think of several things that likely were harder. And so I struggle to believe that the torch snuffing he did during that episode was literally the hardest thing he’s ever done. Unless, of course, we’re accepting the updated (albeit so very inaccurate) definition of the word.
I hope we can all agree that the English language is worth preserving. Watching it deteriorate one definition at a time breaks my heart. Figuratively speaking, of course.