Few words have the capacity to cause such mirth:

• My grandfather, King George VI, who had literally been catapulted onto the throne —Prince Edward as quoted in Private Eye, 1998.

There will always be occasions when this type of hilarity is best avoided; on the other hand, a little linguistic reflection will reveal a logical rigour behind a much derided use.
1. The literal (16c) meaning of literally is ‘in a literal sense’:

• This was a china warehouse indeed, truly and literally to be called so —Daniel Defoe, 1719.

It is still used in this way, with reference to the meaning of individual words (with the word mean often explicitly present) and to the broader sense in which phrases and sentences are to be understood:

• He…was literally too tired to move —J. Gores, 1972

• The cracker in Georgia cracker literally means a person who still cracks corn —S. B. Flexner, 1982.

2. In the course of time, literally became caught up in the language of metaphor, in which English abounds, and we find this type of use:

• Every day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same —Pope, 1708.

From this it is a short step for the word to become an intensifier contained wholly within metaphor:

• For the last four years…I literally coined money —F. A. Kemble, 1863.

In other examples we can see the word half in and half out of the realm of metaphor:

• Crabs and lobsters are literally to be found crawling round the floor waiting for an order —Good Food Guide, 1973

(the creatures are physically crawling around the floor but are, we may assume, only metaphorically waiting for an order).
3. This historical development explains how the word has apparently reversed its meaning; in fact it has done no such thing but has been absorbed into the metaphor; once understood as part of the verbal image and not as external to it, the use makes good linguistic sense. It is doubtful though whether this rationale will satisfy those who see the developed meaning of literally as sloppy and inappropriate (which it rarely is) or as ludicrous (which it sometimes appears to be):

• Most of the buildings on the corniche have literally been face-lifted —Blitz, 1989

• They [supermarkets] can literally play God, even to the point of sending food back to the genetic drawing board for a redesign —Guardian, 1995.

4. In another very common type, literally introduces a fixed expression or cliché that has some particular (often punning) relevance to the context:

• We have lived in a wonderful variety of houses, including…a leaking gothic horror of a Victorian rectory in deepest Sussex that was literally falling to pieces —Medau News, 1980

• There is a catastrophic ‘implosion’…followed by a shock-wave which literally blows the star apart in what is called a supernova outburst —Patrick Moore, 1990

• Today, Cerezo's letter to the villagers is literally carved in stone; a six-foot-high marble and stone replica stands opposite 13 rough wooden crosses, marking the spots where the villagers fell —New Statesman, 1992

• Smith's hundreds of bookshops literally spread the word —Independent on Sunday, 1998.

5. To be avoided is the use of literally in a trite semi-apologetic way that seemingly seeks to overcome a fear in the writer that the reader will not believe what is said, carrying a ‘please believe me’ or ‘I'm not kidding you’ tag: Thus the Prime Minister, the chief executive of the British Government, had literally no idea that he lacked the means to do what he wanted [here literally adds nothing to the sense and is redundant] Independent, 2006

• I suspect that many wine-drinkers are sailing through their lives not realising there are literally hundreds of interesting wines produced in the land of the free —Scotland on Sunday, 2007.

6. The conclusion is: avoid using literally when the effect might be distracting or comic; but it can be used to good effect in cases where it reinforces a strong verbal image.

Modern English usage. 2014.

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