Figuratively, the worst-ever dictionary blunder

Friday, September 20, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 38

Circa 1991, one of my golf buddies uttered a sentence using irregardless. Knowing what that meant, I didn’t challenge him. I figured someone else would. I was right, and he was able (at the other person’s expense) to point out that irregardless had been admitted to a certain dictionary the previous week. And thus was now part of his vocabulary.

I smiled this morning at an editorial, in which the writer railed against the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED has inserted figuratively as a definition of literally. The actual new definition reads “informal used for emphasis while not being literally true.” The editorialist’s commentary reads in part:

“[G]ood old Merriam-Webster has joined the barbarians, too. It seems to believe the word literally also means ‘virtually,’ which it does not. Not even if Mark Twain once used it that way...

“Merriam-Webster tried to cover for itself by noting that such usage has been criticized … and that the word can also be taken as hyperbole. If so, why not just use another word? One that fits. Maybe even, dare we suggest, a correct one?”

Dare we suggest? Now there’s language the common folk ought to take up! Even the lawyers who appear in front of me don’t talk that trash! Let alone the litigants.

“(Sigh.)” [Sic.]

Yes, “(Sigh.)” was an entire paragraph in the editorial. And neither tongue nor cheek of the writer were to be found, though surely he is literally possessed of both. He pondered how OED inserted this definition two years ago without more fallout.

I’d just say it’s been new, literally, for two years. But OED senior editor Fiona McPherson said it better: “It seems to have literally slipped under the radar.”

For fun, let’s fast forward to the same paper’s sports section, where the write-ups of the previous night’s high school games offer entertaining and educational prose. Literally:

“[The team] converted a 14-play, 73-yard drive on its first possession of the fourth quarter.” Doesn’t say what the drive was converted into.

“[They] then scored three consecutive touchdowns on drives totaling eight plays.” Doesn’t say which three of those eight plays were the consecutive touchdowns.

“[T]he [visiting team] … did not try and line up and run over the smaller [home team].” A team should always line up and run over. Or at least try and.

“The loss … spoiled the debut of [the] first-year coach…. For much of the first half, though, it looked like [he] would leave the stadium the most pleased.” Don’t you hate being in a stadium that’s the least pleased?

No offense to the writers. The paper uses stringers to write these recaps. (As a ninth grader, I strung for a Memphis paper that reported on Greenville High’s games.) Operating under tight deadlines, stringers do what’s asked of them. But isn’t an editor supposed to polish these pieces before printing them?

I hesitate to call these to the attention of the editorial writer. That might keep him awake at night. Literally.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at