"We did it guys! We killed English!", or so ran literally billions of tweets that surged across the planet this week, generating literally millions of angry articles and blog posts from people whose heads had literally exploded with outrage at the destruction of their beloved language.

Even gadget blog Gizmodo weighed in. "Grammar-loving folks should pick up their red pens, furrowed brows and pitchforks at the fact that the definition of literally is literally no longer the literal definition of literally," . 

Unfortunately, these self-styled grammar lovers form no phalanx of gladiators defending our language from modern barbarians. They're simply simple linguitard peeververein - to build upon the delightful word coined by The Baltimore Sun's John E McIntyre meaning, in bastard German, "band of peevers" - roaming the Twittersphere in vast, dull cud-munching herds.

Here's how it all started.

Someone - and I won't bother seeking out the culprit, may they wallow anonymously in their idiocy - had typed "define literally" into Google and been shocked by the answer.

1. In a literal manner or sense; exactly: "the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the traffic circle".


2. Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.

"Literally" can mean "not literally"? Logical inconsistency! Boom-splat!

Every single one of the complaining tweets pointing to a screenshot with that second definition outlined in an angry red circle is wrong - on several counts.

First, this not-literal "literal" has been recorded in dictionaries for ages, even if Google may have only just caught up.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, says:

c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: 'virtually, as good as'; (also) 'completely, utterly, absolutely'.

Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally ('not figuratively or metaphorically').

The OED lists the earliest-known usage as 1769, in Frances Brooke's "The history of Emily Montague: In four volumes":

He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.

Even Mark Twain used it, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876:

Linguists have a name for this phenomenon of people imagining that their language bugbears are a new thing: the recency illusion.

Second, a dictionary's job is to record a language as it is written and spoken, so that users of the language can learn to understand how others use it, not to be some sort of arbiter of taste.

And finally, the part I find funniest of all. Even if this usage of "literally" were a problem, it wouldn't be a problem with grammar but with meaning - that is, semantics - an entirely different branch of linguistics.

All this peeving about "literally" is part of what McIntyre calls, in a blog post with the magnificent title :

Indeed. And I'd leave it there but for one thought. The herd of peeververein began their stampede with no more research than a single Google search and looking at the first entry, yet it became global news. I don't think it's English that we've killed.