Okay, here’s the thing. “Literally” doesn’t mean “really.” It’s not a word that you put in front of some other words to show that, unlike the rest of your lackluster sentence, this is the part you really totally completely, like, absolutely mean. And it doesn’t mean figuratively, or metaphorically. “Literally” means that it actually happened.
So if you tell me that you’re “literally going to hijack this meeting,” I’m liable to go all Jet Li on you. If you tell me that viewers of the latest Star Trek movie “quite literally get to pick up the very end of a new thread,” I’m going to imagine dorks in fake Spock ears crawling about the theater floor in search of a string. If you write that the Columbine murderers “literally put a scar across the American Flag,” I’m going to suggest that this is the least of their crimes. If you declare in your headline: “USA Today fights for its life, literally,” I’m going to insist that unless the newspaper’s representatives are in fact in a deathmatch, you are mistaken.
Here’s the beauty of a metaphor — it paints a word picture to take the stress off your feeble collection of adjectives. If you don’t know how to describe an enchanting girl except with the words “pretty” or “hot,” then you can say she took your breath away. We get it. You don’t have to supersize it by telling us she literally took your breath away. Though if you talk that way around me I might, in fact, quite literally, take your breath away.
Our words have entered the realm of fast food. They don’t offer much in the way of nutritional value, and so we dream up ways to enhance a flimsy burger by giving it extra-hot jalapeno cheese. We don’t just say, “I was frightened.” We say, “I was totally, like, so, so frightened.” For the love, people. Buy a freaking thesaurus. Literally.
Why the fuss? Because words, Derrida and a whole host of soul-killing word jesters aside, mean things. They are not just a bunch of grunts lying idly about for your summons, so that they can be haphazardly arranged for you to express yourself as you see fit. They are not minions in the kingdom of You. They do not mean whatever it is you want them to mean. So use them gently. Use them artfully. For God’s sake, use them properly.