The point I'm making here is that literally means "according to the exact meaning of a word". So if you hear that a friend "literally died laughing" you should make plans to attend the funeral.
Literally is apparently a favorite pet peeve of a large number of people. Chris Bucholz chose literally as #1 of 7 "grammar errors that aren't" in a post on his cracked.com blog. After explaining that literally is often used to mean just the opposite - that a gross exaggeration is implied and expected to be understood - he goes on to defend it as a natural change in word meaning. He's a brave man, but makes several good points. One point is historical use by famous authors for which he refers his readers to another good article on literally in the e-zine Slate. The other is that, though it may (figuratively) grate on our nerves, we are forced to admit that in nearly all cases we do know what they mean. Chris hastens to assure us that he is by no means condoning this misuse of literally, which as he puts it is "...a weak, even cliched way of emphasizing something...", he is just advocating a bit more tolerance.
There is even a blog, called "Literally, A Web Log", devoted exclusively to the abuse of the word literally. The authors Patrick Fitzgerald and Amber Rhea list three categories of uses for the word:
The authors and readers post examples from news and other media of the use and misuse of literally. The website has 22 links to other websites on the subject. In 2009 the authors moved to a Facebook page where they continue to document misuses of literally.
The Slate article - "The Word We Love to Hate - Literally" - is more scholarly and well researched. The history of the change in meaning is carefully documented. Towards the end of the 17th century "literally" was being used to emphasize true statements by writers, including Alexander Pope and Jane Austen. One hundred years later, by the end of the 18th century, "literally" was being used to emphasize statements which were figurative or metaphorical in nature. Authors guilty of this grammatical sin include: Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, James Fenimore Cooper, William M. Thackeray, Charles Dickens and Henry David Thoreau. Surprisingly it wasn't until the early 20th century that grammarians began to protest the misuse of the word. The article goes on to explain that literally has become just another contranym - a word with two opposite meanings - like cleave (to separate / to stick together) or scan (to read thoroughly / to skim quickly).
So why does the misuse of literally stick in our craw (figuratively), when we overlook equally misused words like aggravate and scan? I don't really know. One of the reasons could be the feeling of self-satisfaction we experience when we know something someone else doesn't - like the actual meaning of the word "literally". Our feigned indignation may be merely our way of pointing out to others (and ourselves) how superior we are. In fact I suspect this is behind most grammarian sticklerism.
But if I hear one more person use literally for figuratively, I may scream. Literally. So plug your ears!