These people who use “really” to describe things that aren’t actually real! They’re the worst, aren’t they? As we all know, “really” is the adverbial form of the adjective “real”, and “real” means “actually existing, true”. “He really blew my socks off”: did he? Did he really? No he didn’t! He metaphorically or figuratively blew your socks off! Didn’t he! Didn’t he! Your socks remain on!
Obviously anyone who said that would be laughed out of the room. “Really” doesn’t mean “in actual fact” any more, if it ever really did; it means “emphatically”, among other things, and can be used to intensify metaphors as well as verify statements of fact.
How about “truly”? “That was a truly magical evening”? No it wasn’t. There was no magic. Magic doesn’t exist. You’re an idiot. Oh no, wait, “truly” can be used to emphasise non-literal statements as well.
And yet no one seems to get all that upset about it, do they? No one complains that the misuse of the terms “truly” and “really” undermine our ability to communicate with each other or suggests that people who use them as metaphor-intensifiers are stupid or ill-educated. Certainly no one would bother writing a god-damn Firefox plugin that automatically replaces every use of them with “figuratively”. Because doing so would be ridiculous.
For some reason, though, people doing the same with “literally” – which they have, as if I need to remind you yet again, for hundreds of years – invariably gets somebody, not even usually a stereotypical Colonel Blimp from the Home Counties but a young person who knows what the internet is, throwing a gigantic strop, and everyone else on the internet going oh yes it really is the worst thing in the world. Poor old Jamie Redknapp can’t even call Michael Owen “literally a greyhound” without the Deputy Prime Minister getting involved.
“Literally” as an intensifier is hundreds of years old. It has been in the OED since 1903. It is not new. And as Geoff Pullum, an Edinburgh linguist, told me when I interviewed him recently, real languages don’t only not mind a few ambiguous words and phrases (“visiting relatives can be a pain”), they thrive on it and seem to actively seek it out.
If you don’t like “literally” as an intensifier, that’s fine. Lots of people don’t. And, in fact, that’s a good reason to encourage people to be careful about its use, because so many people dislike it; if you use it in a job interview in front of someone who really dislikes it, it might not help your case. That, in microcosm, is why it’s a good idea to teach Standard English – because people confuse the use of other dialects and registers with ignorance or lack of education.
But that’s the only reason. “Literally” used figuratively is not going to undermine our ability to understand, any more than the two competing meanings of the word “wicked” do. Please stop complaining about it, because it is literally boring me to tears.
NB: As Fred Stephens points out to me on Twitter, “very” also means “truly”, coming from the same root as “veracity”, “verity” etc.
Other times I’ve banged on about “literally”: