Recently I've heard American TV commentators say "[a person] was literally decimated" and "[a Senator] was literally thrown under the bus". In the first case I think the person was not actually 10% killed, but in the second, I believe they meant that 57 members of the US Senate carried #58 onto Constitution Avenue and threw him under a (hopefully moving) bus.

Are usages like these normal or acceptable now? I find them grating, myself.

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    Are you genuinely unsure whether these usages are normal, or are you just venting your frustration? – Kosmonaut Aug 24 '10 at 18:02
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    A little of both. I think they are in the process of becoming normal, and I'll probably stop being annoyed by them eventually. What I still won't like is that a drastic semantic shift in a short period is tough on reading comprehension. Stuff our parents wrote will be that much harder for our children to read. – Taldaugion Aug 24 '10 at 20:34
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    What I'm really after is, what do you do when caught in the middle of a semantic shift? As an example: If I'm writing a college paper, and I say, "the 9th Legion was literally decimated", "Marie Antoinette was literally decimated", and "Tony Blair was literally decimated", given that the 3 statements are of varying degrees of literal vs figurative, for how many will I have points deducted? – Taldaugion Aug 24 '10 at 21:04
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    @Taldaugion with respect to words that have been brought into the light due to criticism over shifting meanings, my advice is simply to avoid using them at all. The traditional meaning of decimate is only applicable in discussion of historical military matters, and literally has plenty of perfectly serviceable synonyms. – nohat Aug 24 '10 at 23:02
  • "[a Senator] was literally thrown under the bus" To me, this use of "literally" means not only was a Senator physically thrown under a bus, but that other Senators threw him under a bus to save their own hides - a double meaning. – RobertF Jan 25 '19 at 17:01

The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary give these senses:

2 : in effect : virtually <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins>

with the following usage note:

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

and for decimate, they have the following senses, with no usage note:

3 a : to reduce drastically especially in number <cholera decimated the population> b : to cause great destruction or harm to <firebombs decimated the city> <an industry decimated by recession>

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    re: decimate: does anyone actually use the "reduce by 10%" meaning anymore? Sure, that's the origin of the word... but lots of words are divorced from their etymology. I do find "figurative literal" annoying though. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 26 '10 at 18:31
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    TheOatmeal responds: theoatmeal.com/comics/literally – Midhat Sep 22 '10 at 16:38
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    Literally, literally means literally! THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS!!! – StuperUser Jul 18 '12 at 10:28
  • amusingly, @StuperUser's statement is now true for both interpretations of literally – fostandy Apr 5 '16 at 1:50

The New Oxford American Dictionary reports the following note in the usage section:

In recent years, an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in nonliteral contexts, for added effect: they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground. This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal English.

In formal sentences, literally should be used as in I told him I never wanted to see him again, but I didn't expect him to take it literally.

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    It is worth noting that "literally" should not be used in the exaggerated sense in formal English, but I wouldn't go so far as to say it is wrong for people to use it this way informally. – Kosmonaut Aug 24 '10 at 18:42
  • I corrected the sentence; the example I wrote is an example of how literally can be used in a formal sentence. Formal sentence doesn't indeed mean the correct way to write a sentence. – kiamlaluno Aug 24 '10 at 19:41
  • One could add a "yet" between "not" and "acceptable"... – Jürgen A. Erhard Feb 2 '11 at 16:54
  • In informal sentences, literally should be used in the same way. – compman May 4 '11 at 19:32

With regards to decimation, the original meaning is derived from a practice in the military of Ancient Rome. Quoted from this page:

A unit selected for punishment by decimation was divided into groups of ten; each group drew lots (Sortition), and the soldier on whom the lot fell was executed by his nine comrades, often by stoning or clubbing. The remaining soldiers were given rations of barley instead of wheat and forced to sleep outside of the Roman encampment.

Because the punishment fell by lot, all soldiers in the group were eligible for execution, regardless of the individual degree of fault, or rank and distinction.

Indeed, this word has been so greatly abused over time (perhaps through ignorance) that its more general meaning of "to destroy" or "to severely harm" is now virtually accepted.

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    or, that instead of affecting 10%, it now means only 10% is left – warren Aug 25 '10 at 17:39

They are becoming increasingly common, and it annoys me too. Since persistent misusers always get their way in the end, I expect literally and decimate to go the way of ultimate and panacea.

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    what happened to ultimate and panacea? – nohat Aug 24 '10 at 18:01
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    They were literally decimated. – Shawn D. Aug 24 '10 at 18:10
  • @nohat - their meanings were so comprehensively destroyed that they cannot be used to mean what they originally meant. – Brian Hooper Aug 24 '10 at 19:46
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    Words cannot describe how I felt when I found out that "The Penultimate Peril" was the SECOND-TO-LAST book of "A Sequence of Unfortunate Events". Thank you, Lemony Snickett. – David Thornley Sep 22 '10 at 15:04

People often use the word "literally" when they really mean "virtually." As in, "Many people in America have smart phones, netbooks, or laptops virtually attached to their hips." Obviously people don't actually have laptops attached to their hips via some leather case with a belt loop, thus you cannot say that they literally have them attached to their hips.

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    Careful with this example. "Virtual" has specific meanings when discussing electronics such as computers and smart phones. The example is not wrong but the juxtaposition of meanings here could confuse people. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 26 '10 at 18:34

The misuse of literally is not intentional or ironic. It is used by people who have heard it used properly and thought the speaker meant seriously or absolutely.

If literally can mean either its true meaning or its exact opposite, what word can we use when we actually do want to say someone literally wet themselves laughing?

  • That's an interesting answer. I'm picturing calling someone on the phone saying 'My kids are literally bouncing of the walls - can you come around and help?' – dwjohnston May 17 '14 at 11:31

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