Snobbery and pointless anger, like most things, feature tides of fashionability and for quite some time the alleged misuse of the word “literally” has been on the sharp tongues of prescriptivists everywhere. Kindly dissolving any comic effect its abuse could have by pointing out that ‘literally’ means just that. If you drop the lit-bomb it had better be because something literally happened or else you’re in for the condescension of a lifetime as the amateur grammarian’s spittle gurgles between the caves of their incisors. There would be more sympathy for this crusade if it were a genuine concern rather than a falsely adopted one. I am not sure I will ever understand why ‘literally’ gets such a hard time but it is fine to describe the latest Apple product as the ‘ultimate telephone’ despite the last slide of the presentation offering pre-orders for their next machine.
Some have tried to defend the use of ‘literally’ as a means of exaggeration because language changes and words acquire new meanings. ‘Literally’ isn’t being used incorrectly, it just has a new meaning. That is, however, missing the real value of the word ‘literally’. The value of misusing ‘literally’ is that you are subverting its meaning, either for comic effect or to put a safeguard before some hyperbole. ‘I’m literally pooping my pants’ is different to simply, ‘I’m pooping my pants’ and it is an important and useful difference. We use idioms and cutesy expressions all the time and so there is a need to shake out stale language. You are making it clear that you really are scared about the upcoming event and you’re not just dropping a thoughtless expression. You’re not just a bit nervous about the event; you are so nervous that the idiom ‘I’m pooping my pants’ has taken on literal dimensions for you. You’re not simply adding life into tired language or misusing an adjective, you are adopting that language as a way of fully expressing yourself. You are not metaphorically scared: you are literally scared.
What’s more important to remember is that we misuse language like this all the time. It’s a perfectly normal part of the English language. See right there? Was it ‘perfectly’ normal? Isn’t that a contradiction or is misusing a word actually part of a flawless version of normalcy? I’m not sure and it doesn’t really matter because language is not literal. Language is a means of communicating: whether that is direct information or just feelings and emotions. Pointing out that someone is misusing ‘literally’ when they know they are, is as ludicrous as deconstructing any use of figurative language. In such an instance as ‘that was literally the dumbest thing I have ever heard’ the word ‘literally’ is being used figuratively. Your dumb statement is being compared to the dumbest thing of all time and the ‘literally’ is being used as hyperbole on top of hyperbole. What’s odd is that the sentences ‘that argument was World War 3’ and ‘that argument was literally World War 3’ are identical. Saying something literally happened and saying something happened are the same thing. To be consistent when complaining about ‘literally’ you should demand people add ‘metaphorically’ to any metaphor they use because ‘the band was on fire last night’ doesn’t mean the band was really successfully it means they were in flames and probably dying. We can only understand a sentence such as ‘the band was on fire last night’ by using non-linguistic clues such as the fact the band is not burnt to a crisp. But, we also do that for the use of ‘literally’.
It would be annoying to respond to ‘I’m actually pooping my pants’ with ‘Oh are you “actually” going to poop your pants? Because I think that you would be running to the trees over there with your hands cupping steaming poop out of the bottom of your shorts if that were the case’, but for ‘literally’ it is considered necessary as people seem to lose their ability to interpret language when some utters it. The most puzzling piece of this whole situation is that everyone, even our beloved teen population who fill their mouths with a few literarllys each day knows that they are not using the word correctly.
If you are some deranged traditionalist I can respect your inane hypocrisy on this matter but what is it that you are gaining by correcting an intentional mistake which makes the basis for the vividness of our language?