In 2013, the definition of “literally” changed, marking a dictionary event of cataclysmic proportion. Many decried Merriam-Webster’s choice to add to the standard definition, which reads, “in a literal manner or sense; exactly,” an informal definition, reading, “used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.” The dictionary, detractors claimed, had got it wrong by fabricating a new definition, the use of which was totally incorrect. Some critics refrained from blaming dictionary editors, and instead blamed society as a whole: only in a broken and corrupt society can language be so mangled that words mean their opposite.
Of course, this is simply how dictionaries work. Teams of editors pay close attention to nonstandard usages of familiar words, and attempt to catalogue these usages by adding them to the official definition. The job of a dictionary is to define how a word is being used, not to regulate how it ought to be used. In linguistics, the school of thought that demands language follow rules is called “prescriptivism,” and the competing school, which tracks the movement of language without imposing rules, is called “descriptivism.” Dictionaries are descriptive.
Nevertheless, dictionaries have a fair bit of power in popularizing and raising awareness for new uses of words. And words continue to be used in new ways. This may be the case for the word “fact.” Currently, Merriam-Webster defines fact as “a thing that is known or proved to be true.” However, descriptive methods suggest that it is time to expand this definition to include, “a piece of information, whether it is true or untrue.”
“Fact” has morphed in recent years. Kellyanne Conway, Senior Counselor to former president Trump, coined the phrase “alternative facts” in 2017. Since then, the phrase has worked its way into hundreds of news articles, opinion pieces, and even a Dictionary.com blog post. Additionally, colloquial uses of “alternative fact” or “incorrect fact” abound on Twitter and Facebook. The word “fact” is being stripped from its basis in truth, and coming to stand for any information, whether correct or incorrect, true or untrue. A fact could soon be any statement — or any fiction.
This is not an inherent cause for alarm, just in the same way that “literally” changing to mean “figuratively” should not be a cause for alarm. Words change meanings. Dictionaries have changed the definitions of hundreds of important words through the years. Nor is there any worry that without the word “fact” the concept will be forgotten; “fact” has many synonyms whose original meanings go unchallenged. “Accuracy,” “truth,” and “correct statement” are all available to fill the gap that “fact” may be leaving behind.
However, in a political and social landscape plagued by intentional misinformation, unquantifiable statements, and lots of bad science, we may no longer be able to take facts we are presented as truth anymore. Readers must be careful to validate information given to us by politicians, journalists, and pop scientists, who may be either outright wrong or misconstruing data. As a rule of thumb, readers should look for sources to back up claims, make sure that numbers and scientific perspectives come from research journals, and be extra skeptical of articles that confirm their own point of view. As media gets increasingly partisan, stories grow increasingly complex, and authority figures seem increasingly hard to find, we must not give up a search for unbiased, accurate, truth. And that’s a fact!