I'm going to start out with a kind of disclaimer. Shortly I'm going to talk a bit about a segment on The Colbert Report and note that it's kind of fan-boy esoteric. Since I don't often write about The Colbert Report, my reference below might imply that there's something unusual about a bit of allusive complexity on Colbert, and I want to clarify that the segment I'll refer to is a tad more esoteric than the Colbert-ian norm, but not much; indeed the one I'll get to is barely in the same sport, let alone in the same league, as the awesome nerdocity of the first J. R. R. Tolkien-geek smackdown between Colbert and James Franco (5 April 2011). The Colbert/Franco scherzo and fugue on Lord of the Rings trivia reached levels of dorkoid esoterica I have never encountered, and I am a member of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, have friends who have written books on Tolkien, and was named first faculty advisor (as the first chapter prank) by the Miami University Society for Creative Anachronism.
That being clear — I've hesitated to comment on misuses of the word "literally" in part because Stephen Colbert said all that needed to be said on the subject — for some audiences.
The occasion was one of the long series of Republican 2012 Presidential Primary Debates, one a couple weeks after President Obama announced the withdrawal of most US combat troops in Iraq. Candidate Rick Perry said in the debate that he'd return US troops to Iraq, lest we "see Iran […] move back in [into Iraq] at literally the speed of light." Colbert sensed the figurative blood in the figurative water and figuratively did whatever the technical term is for what sharks do when they take a big bite out of a thrashing, wounded prey creature: “The speed of light," Colbert quoted. "Not figuratively, literally. […] Folks, forget nuclear weapons. Iran has developed the warp drive. Those centrifuges were actually enriching dilithium crystals. And unless we stop them, Captain Mahmoud Ahmad-kirk-ejad will soon be getting it on with 72 space virgins.”
To truly, if figuratively, savor this moment, it helps to know that there seems to be no way that matter in our universe can move as fast as or faster than the speed of light; as one version of the T-shirt has it "299,792,458 meters per second. It's not just a good idea, it's the law!" It also helps to know that science fiction writers fudge one way around the limitations of the speed of light barrier by invoking theories of a space warp where the shortest distance between two points in our universe can be through one or more higher dimensions so that a space ship at point A can get to point B in what looks like a speed faster than light.
This idea became canonical for a generation with the Warp Drive, especially on classic Star Trek, the series featuring William Shatner as Captain James Tiberius Kirk. It made sense in the 1960s. One way to get FTL (Faster Than Light) travel was to have a chapter explaining theories how it might be possible, as Arthur C. Clarke did in his novel of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Another way was just to say, "Warp two, Mr. Sulu." If humans can break the Sound Barrier and go faster than sound at Mach 2 and 3 and all, it stands to whatever substitutes for reason while we watch a movie or TV show that going "Warp 2" or "Warp 3" will get us FTL. It's what Walt Disney called "The Plausible Impossible" (Disneyland 3.08, which is blocked on YouTube, so don't bother).
And the Warp Drives on vessels on Star Trek were powered by "dilithium crystals," which have something to do with antimatter.
Further, the President of Iran at the time was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and one set of Muslim beliefs has it that male martyrs to the faith will be greeted and serviced in Paradise by seventy-two virgins — morphed into "space virgins" by the old SciFi convention of "skify-ing up" a phrase by just putting "space" before all manner of words.
Enough members of Colbert's audience could that Colbert got a laugh, and the clip seems to be popular. So for some folks, for a while, a figurative stake has been put into the figurative heart of "literally."
It's not enough, though, and it is too much.
The Colbert routine isn't enough because of the limited demographics; it's too much for a number of reasons, starting with all my uses above of "figuratively."
We use figures of speech all the time, including the hyperbole of "all the time." To say "figuratively" every time would, as the figure has it, get old fast.
And the word in question, "literally," can get complicated.
In the section on his "[…] Theory of Symbols" in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Northrop Frye contrasts literary symbols that are descriptive and refer to things outside the text, and those that are what he calls literal. As the Wikipedia article has it, "To Frye, literal means nearly the opposite of its usage in common speech; to say that something 'literally' means something generally involves referring to a definition external to the text. Instead," in Frye's usage, "literal refers to the symbol's meaning in its specific literary situation while descriptive refers to personal connotation and conventional definition."
Uh, huh. Even among those of us who continued to like Frye after the 1960s, this usage of "literal" never caught on. But no less a serious thinker about language than Northrop Frye used "literal" that way, and, if you go back far enough, he had a point. The Oxford English Dictionary's etymology for "literal" begins, "of or relating to literature (beginning of the 14th cent.), of or relating to the ‘letter’ of a text," — and only after the 1300s came to mean "of or relating to the ‘letter’ of a text, obtained by taking words and passages in their primary or usual meaning" — i.e., what we usually mean by "literal" and "literally": the words as they usually mean, not getting figurative (metaphorical, allegorical, mystical — fancy schmancy) on their figurative asses.
Fairly recently, but long before the 2012 elections, some rhetorically daring people came upon the (bad) idea of using "literally" figuratively, as in the OED's definition 6.c, noting a colloquial literally, "Used in figurative or hyperbolic expressions to add emphasis or as an intensifier: veritable, real; complete, absolute, utter" and giving as their first example a quotation going back to a magazine article from 1857: "We hurried on to Baden Baden. Let no American send his son thither if he have any penchant for the card-table or the roulette. It is a literal hell." The OED editors immediately add that this usage is "Often considered irregular in standard English, since it reverses the earlier sense ‘without metaphor, exaggeration, or distortion’."
Baden Baden is a spa town in southern Germany, and it may've been a very sordid place in the 1850s. Still, it wasn't hell or even, literally, "a hell"; at worst, it could be seen as a very large "gambling hell," in the manner of, say, Las Vegas.
Irregular usage, though, is no big deal, and no one should spend time attacking Northrop Frye for getting ingenious with "literal" or for anyone still using the phrase "gambling hell." What is a big deal is "literally" as a hyperbolic intensifier. Nowadays we suffer from serious language inflation, and overstatement is becoming not just an issue of grammar but of politics and ethics.
"He's literally as bad as Hitler" is figurative language; the figure of speech is hyperbole, overstatement — and unless that statement refers to a mass murderer on the order of Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, Stalin, or Mao, the statement on its face — no argument necessary — is overstatement that's massive and bordering on the obscene. Matthew White gives for the death toll for World War II as some 66 million people and cites for "Who usually gets the most blame: the Axis, especially Hitler" (The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, p. ). Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature passes along as at least plausible, theories of "No Hitler, no Holocaust" and no Hitler, no World War II, at least not as the "hemoclysm" World War II became (208-9).
"As bad as Hitler" — literally? Cut the crap. Figuratively.