Really, people? Is this new definition so bad?
The English language was, is, and will always be finicky and in flux. The only institutions that are actually keeping up with developments in the English language are the dictionaries, and merely as people who make slang terms canon. So it was to the dismay of a certain number of educated people that dictionaries decided to add a new definition to the adverb "literally." The word, meant to define actions or descriptions that are to be taken at their word, has been made into a slang term to exaggerate said actions or descriptions by the populace. The use of literally in the latter context has already annoyed the hell out of these people, and now that this new definition has been made canon, they are shrieking in pain, lamenting the "death of the English language."
For all the drama that these snobs are making out of this event, let us step back a few feet and realize how stupid this "re-definition" kerfuffle is. First of all, "literally" has not been "re-defined." The word still means what it means, it just received an additional definition that the populace has also been using for the past several years. People can ignore the new definition if they want to. There is nothing forcing people to accept the new definition in their own day-to-day lives, just that others use it differently.
Secondly, and more importantly, who are these pretentious snobs to suddenly think that they are judge and jury over how the English language is used? I write this question as a writer, a college graduate whose primary studies were in English, and someone who has a sincere interest in linguistics. It is disgusting how people are acting in discussing this word and the role of dictionaries. That there is a debate over whether dictionaries should be "descriptive" or "prescriptive" just shows how obnoxious and elitist these snobs are, for most people do not even know what those words mean, let alone use them on a regular basis.
Relatedly, unlike other languages such as French or German, there has never been complete and/or legal control over how English is used, and thus is probably the reason why the language is one of the most important languages in the world. To understand this, know that the number of native English speakers is less than half the number of total speakers (335 million vs. 765 million). In places like the Philippines and Nigeria, the English language is used everyday, but in such a way that most of these elitists would find infuriating. Consider this article from the largest English-language newspaper in the world, the Times of India. There are plenty of grammatical errors that would anger the snobs, but that is how Indians use English in India. There is no control, so these people should not act like there needs to be oversight suddenly because a single formal word has suddenly become slang.
Finally, and most importantly, this debate is happening over what is a terrible word. The best use of "literally" in the first definition is when a phrase that could be interpreted as metaphor needs to be treated as an actual fact. For example, consider the phrase "Steve bought the farm." The phrase can be interpreted as buying a farm, or (for inexplicable reason) dying. Rather than use "literally" to emphasize the fact, though, why not just change "the" to "a" or "this/that?" It is not hard. It takes so little effort, too. When people use "literally" in conversation, at least originally, it just seemed to be more a way for a person to show that they are fancy, sophisticated, or intelligent than anything else. Martha Gill makes some valid points in this matter, but misses the key point: That the people starting this "debate" are people who do not want to lose whatever advantage they have over the masses. It is silly and ridiculous, but more importantly, this debate over a word is repulsive. Literally.