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Why It's Literally Not Wrong To Say "Literally"

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Young people have always used language in new and different ways, and it has pretty much always driven older people crazy.
Renee Klahr
Young people have always used language in new and different ways, and it has pretty much always driven older people crazy.

Many of us feel irked when we hear people speaking "incorrectly" — whether it's using "like" a few too many times, or the word "literally" to mean "figuratively" — we have a sense that there is a correct way to speak, and that that isn't it. While new speech patterns might be irritating, the linguist John McWhorter says, they can't possibly be wrong. His new book is Words on the Move: Why English Won't and Can't Sit Still (Like Literally).

"It's the nature of human language to change," McWhorter says. "And there's never been a language that didn't do that." This, he says, is how Latin became French. It's how Old English became Modern English. "Nobody wishes that we hadn't developed our modern languages today from the ancient versions," McWhorter says.

This week on Hidden Brain, we'll hear why using "literally" to mean "figuratively" simply makes that word a new contronym, and how even internet abbreviations like "lol" have meanings that evolve over time.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly, and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

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