Is the new use of “literally” literally the worst thing to happen in English?

I get annoyed with people who complain about the use of the word “literally”. They think it is some objective arbiter of reality and any figurative usage is simply heinous.
 
Except, “literally” even in the sense of “the following is an accurate reflection of reality” (such as “He literally fell over when he heard the news”) is a metaphor. One of the definitions of “literal” that I could find says “representing the exact words of the original text”.
 
This means that if someone takes what you say “literally” it means that they are taking you exactly at your word. They are making a direct correspondence with the words and the reality they are in. This meaning comes from the act of writing.
 
When things are written down, they become more solid, and long lasting. Words are wind, but written words live down the ages. We can still learn what someone said 500 years ago if it was written down. So “literally” as in “a close or exact correspondence with the written word” came to mean “a close correspondence with reality” or “these words are used just as precisely as they are used in a good book”.
 
Of course that means that “literally” took on an air of authority. If something “literally” happened, it was to be taken seriously. If you “literally” fell over when you heard bad news, then you should see a doctor, because there might be something wrong with you.
 
But words and language changes over time. People are always looking for ways to “punch up” or strengthen their words in some way. So this lead to the meaning that is complained about which is “it is almost as if this thing really happened, that is how close it came”, as in “I literally died when he told me”.
 
Obviously you are not dead. Anyone who fails to understand that point has serious deficiencies in the comprehension department. It is there to exaggerate what is said. You could say “I almost died” but use of the word which can mean “this is an accurate reflection of reality” really sends the hyperbole to the next level.
 
If you want to be upset about hyperbole, fine, be upset about hyperbole. But stop getting upset about this word. If you insist, then I will have to tell you a little story.
 
“Je ne marche” used to be the way to say “I do not walk” in French. Then to be colourful people used to “Je ne marche pas”, where “pas” means “step”. So this means “I don’t walk a step”. It’s just a colourful addition to bring attention to the fact that I don’t walk.
 
But over time, people just came to see “je ne marche pas” as “I do not walk” and extra meaning of “pas” was lost. It has gotten to the stage now in colloquial French where people just say “je marche pas”. A little bit of accentuating a situation introduced double negatives to French.
 
So “literally” getting the meaning of “this is a bit of an exaggeration” is literally not the end of the world.

 

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