When I introduce myself as a dictionary editor to a stranger, I can usually count on a few things. The stranger will say, "Oh, I'll have to watch how I talk in front of you." The stranger will ask me about why some word like bling was put into The Dictionary (as though there's only one). And then the stranger will complain about a pet usage peeve, some error perpetrated by members of a disliked group—sportscasters, say, or teenagers, or Americans.
Recently, strangers I meet seem particularly peeved by people who use literally to mean figuratively (the ones who say things like "he literally exploded with rage"). Even strangers I don't meet are fixated—two of them run a reasonably informed blog devoted to "tracking abuse of the word 'literally.' "
As is often the case, though, such "abuses" have a long and esteemed history in English. Tom Sawyer wasn't turning somersaults on piles of money when Twain described him as "literally rolling in wealth," nor was Jay Gatsby shining when Fitzgerald wrote that "he literally glowed," nor were Bach and Beethoven squeezed into a fedora when Joyce wrote in Ulysses that a Mozart piece was "the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat." Such examples are easily come by, even in the works of the authors we are often told to emulate.
How did literally come to mean the opposite of what it originally meant? The earliest uses of literally were "in a literal manner; word for word" ("translated literally from Greek") and "in a literal sense; exactly" ("He didn't mean that literally").
By the late 17th century, though, literally was being used as an intensifier for true statements. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Dryden and Pope for this sense; Jane Austen, in Sanditon, wrote of a stormy night that, "We had been literally rocked in our bed." In these examples, literally is used for the sake of emphasis alone. *
Eventually, though, literally began to be used to intensify statements that were themselves figurative or metaphorical. The earliest examples I know of are from the late 18th century, and though there are examples throughout the 19th century—often in prominent works; to my earlier examples could be added choice quotations from James Fenimore Cooper, Thackeray, Dickens, and Thoreau, among many others—no one seems to have objected to the usage until the early 20th century. In 1909, Ambrose Bierce included the term in Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, offering the following sentence—"His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet."—as suspect. "It is bad enough to exaggerate," he wrote, "but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable." Revered usage writer H.W. Fowler complained in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage that, "We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that ... we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate." The examples usually stigmatized are the ones in which literally modifies a cliché or a metaphoric use that is already highly figurative.
Why, though, did this usage of literally suddenly come under such fire? It is not the first, nor will it be the last, instance of a word that is used in a seemingly contradictory way. There are many such words, and they arise through various means. Called "Janus words," "contranyms," or "auto-antonyms," they include cleave ("to stick to" and "to split apart"), dust ("to remove dust from" and "to sprinkle dust upon"), moot ("able to be discussed; arguable" and "purely theoretical") and peruse and scan (each meaning both "to read closely" and "to glance at hastily; skim"). Usage writers often criticize such words as potentially confusing and usually single out one of the meanings as "wrong," the "right" meaning being the older one, or the one closer to the word's etymological meaning, or the one more frequent when 18th-century grammarians began to examine language systematically. It's not always possible to predict when something will be condemned: While the "skim" sense of peruse is often criticized, the "skim" sense of scan—the main current sense—is rarely noticed, even though it's a recent development, quite different from the meaning the word had for centuries.
In the case of literally, the "right" meaning is said to be "exactly as described; in a literal way," because that's what the base word literal is supposed to mean. In fact, the literal meaning of literal would be something like "according to the letter," but it's almost never used this way. "He copied the manuscript literally" would be one possible example. So when we use literally to refer to something other than individual letters—to whole words, or to thoughts in general—we are already walking down the figurative path, and if we end up with people eating curry so hot that their mouths are "literally on fire," how surprised can we be?
The trouble with usage criticism of the sort leveled at literally is that it's typically uneven: Parallel uses are frequent and usually pass unnoticed. For every peruse there's a scan (see my essays on these terms here and here); for every hopefully there's a clearly; and for every literally there's a really: Or did you expect people to complain when really is used to emphasize things that are not "real"? When Meg, in Little Women, moaned that "It's been such a dismal day I'm really dying for some amusement," she wasn't the one dying.
The one sensible criticism that can be made about the intensive use of literally is that it can often lead to confusing or silly-sounding results. In this case, the answer is simple: Don't write silly-soundingly. Some usage books even bother to make this point about literally. Then again, most usage advice could be reduced to one simple instruction: "Be clear." But that would be the end of a publishing category.
Correction, March 6, 2013: This piece originally quoted a passage from Little Women—"the land literally flowed with milk and honey,"—as an example of literally used as an intensifier. Further context reveals that Louisa May Alcott was using literally literally. The passage has been removed.
Correction, Nov. 2, 2005: The original version of this piece misspelled the title of Jane Austen's novel Sanditon. In addition, the piece included a quotation from Benjamin Franklin and said it used the word "literally" as an intensifier for a true statement. Franklin's quotation, when considered in its full context, actually uses "literally" in its original sense.(Return to the corrected sentence.)