Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: literally.

literally. “Literally” = (1) with truth to the letter; or (2) exactly; according to the strict sense of the word or words. “Literally” in the sense “truly, completely” is a slipshod extension — e.g.: “Behavioralists and postbehavioralists alike, literally or figuratively, learn what they know of science from the natural sciences, from the outside.” (Read: “Behavioralists and post-behavioralists alike learn what they know of science from the natural sciences, from the outside.”) When used for “figuratively,” where “figuratively” would not ordinarily be used, “literally” is distorted beyond recognition — e.g.: “For Chip Sullivan, former club professional turned PGA Tour pro, life literally [delete ‘literally’] has been turned upside down.” Randy King, “PGA Life Different Than [read ‘From’] Being Home on the Range,” Roanoke Times & World News, 15 Jan. 1997, at B1. A New Yorker cartoon that appeared on 28 Feb. 1977 (p. 54), by Lorenz, had this funny bit of dialogue: “Confound it, Hawkins, when I said I meant that literally, that was just a figure of speech.” Although Webster’s 3rd International Dictionary (1961) acknowledged that “literally” could be used to mean “in effect, virtually,” it didn’t record the complete reversal in sense that led “literally” to mean “metaphorically” or “figuratively.” This reversal appears to have been first recognized in the early 1970s. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. Quotation of the Day: “Children who are born into homes of privilege, in the way of wealth, tradition, or education, become native speakers of what is popularly known as ‘good’ English; the linguist prefers to give it the non-committal name of ‘standard’ English. Less fortunate children become native speakers of ‘bad’ or ‘vulgar’ or, as the linguist prefers to call it, ‘non-standard’ English.” Leonard Bloomfield, Language 48 (1933).
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