It’s certainly bizarre when a word takes on an informal, disputed meaning that is the polar opposite to its formal meaning—but that’s exactly what has happened, gradually, to ‘literally.’ And the disputed version seems to be showing up everywhere these days.
The more traditional meaning is, one might say, a matter of taking things at their word. When an event is said to have happened ‘literally,’ then the event took place exactly as described, ‘to the letter,’ without exaggeration, inaccuracy, irony, metaphor or allegory. To be literal is thus to use words’ primary meanings, not to play with them.
Yet, dictionaries also acknowledge the less official connotation, whereby ‘literally’ is not used to be straightforward at all, but rather for blunt force of emphasis, exaggeration and/or intensification. This once calm adverb veers toward the superlative.
The use of ‘literally’ to describe figurative scenarios has a long history, but time has not aged it well. If anything, it has only become more ambiguous and, as a result, faces a higher risk of losing all meaning than of gaining additional meaning.
It is easy to find current examples. On December 26, 2008, MSNBC ran a story about a cat with frostbite with the headline ‘Jack Frost Nips at Little Kitten, Literally!’ This sort of use does no one any good. A case of frostbite is a case of frostbite; it is literal neither in the traditional sense (i.e. a case of being bitten by a walking, talking Jack Frost) nor in the disputed sense (i.e. a particularly intense case of frostbite, somehow worthy of exaggeration or emphasis).
Two days later, a smaller-market news source headline reported ‘… students dance (literally) after win.’ What connotation does that slyly parenthesized interruption provide? The students danced; ça suffit. It’s not as though we humble readers would, without ‘literally’ jammed into that headline, falsely assume that either (a) the students didn’t actually dance or (b) they did a half-assed job of it, unworthy of emphasis. We’re sufficiently likely to take the headline literally without being told to do so.
I’m sure these and other writers and editors have the best intentions, but their ongoing overuse of ‘literally’ smacks of desperation, depicting perhaps the sad state of the media, where they need such a word to serve as an exclamation point to capture readers’ attention, as though to shout “this is really important!” This path can only lead, however, to the word losing all such power, as readers become accustomed and finally blind to such messy use.
Ease off, folks, please. Less is more. (Not literally.)