Word of the Day


© Natalie Dawkins/Macmillan Education
Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


1. the ability to read and write

2. knowledge and competence in a particular area

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun literacy is formed from the adjective ‘literate’ and the suffix ‘-acy’ which is used in nouns referring to a quality, state or condition. Literacy was formed in imitation of the noun illiteracy which was first used in the mid 17th century. Literacy dates from the 1880s, while the second meaning above was first used in the mid 20th century.


September 8th was International Literacy Day, an annual UNESCO-sponsored event that has shone the spotlight on the importance of literacy since 1967. The event aims to highlight literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights, and enable progress towards a more literate and sustainable society. The focus of 2019’s International Literacy Day was ‘Literacy and multilingualism’. While the first and main meaning of literacy refers to the ability to read and write, the word’s meaning has been extended to cover many other kinds of competence. So we talk of ‘financial’ and ‘economic’ literacy, but also of ’emotional’ and ‘cultural’ literacy. The most frequent adjective collocates of literacy in the corpus used to compile Macmillan Dictionary, apart from ‘financial’, are all heavily influenced by technology: they are ‘digital’, ‘information’, ‘media’, and ‘computer’. ‘Visual’, ‘scientific’, and ‘technological’ come next, with ’emotional’ and ‘cultural’ way down the list.


“Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy – which many believe goes hand in hand with it – will be dead as well.”
(Margaret Atwood)

Related words

knowledge, understanding, grounding, know-how

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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