As every Listener reader knows, it is not some workaday intensifier. It is deployed to mean the opposite of “figuratively” – that is, the true sense, the essence of words. (Slate had a history of the word a few years ago.)
And then along comes the Economist’s Prospero blog, where Robert Lane Greene writes: “It is literally impossible to be literal.”
The very oldest meaning of “literally” described it as “of, relating to, or of the nature of a letter, or the letters, of the alphabet” (Oxford English Dictionary). It is only by extension that ‘by the letter’ has come to mean ‘real things in the real world’. And that jump makes literally—are you sitting down?—a metaphor.”
With the exception of nouns such as “rock” and “tree”, Lane Greene continues, just about everything we say is a “metaphorical extension of some other word.”
For example, you cannot use “independent” without metaphor, unless you mean “not hanging from”. You can’t use “transpire” unless you mean “to breathe through”. The first English meaning of a book was “a written document”. If we want to avoid all metaphorised language (If we want to be “literal”), we must constantly rush to a historical dictionary and frantically check that there is no concrete meaning historically antecedent to the one we hope to use. In every language, pretty much everything is metaphor—even good old “literally”, the battle-axe of those who think that words can always be pinned down precisely.
Despair not, however. As long as enough of us stick to our metaphorical guns, literally means what we mean it to mean. “The body of educated English speakers has decided, by voice and by deed, that ‘literally’ does mean something real in the real world,” writes Lane Greene.
“Widespread educated usage is ultimately what determines its meaning. And perhaps that is concrete enough.”
See also: grammar pedant or language bully