I remember it like it was literally yesterday. I was sitting on a bench in Central Park nearly four years ago when my ears literally perked up at the egregious and altogether jarring utterance that literally hurt to hear: the misuse of the word “literally”. In this case, the culprits were two high school girls, going on about being “literally soaked from head to toe” by the (light) rainfall that afternoon. I didn’t understand. What did they mean? They were barely wet! What could possibly compel someone to use a word to mean its opposite?
As it turns out, this language misuse has become an all too common trend within modern-day American and British English vernacular. We have grown accustomed to using the word “literally” when we mean “figuratively”, lobbying for added effect while abandoning the precise and strict meaning of the one word whose use is constrained to precise and strict meaning. And we’re doing so at a dangerously fast pace: since 2005, Google searches for “literally” have more than quadrupled, suggesting both a public acceptance of the term however it’s used and a general curiosity about its use (leading search terms include “literally + meaning”, “definition + literally”, and “literally + means”).