You hear that term a lot, don’t you? “Literally!” In most cases, I’m also guessing you’re hearing it used incorrectly.
“They were scared literally to death!”
“If these guys don’t respond to my email by tonight, I’m going to literally explode.”
(You must be terrified.)
“It literally made me come unglued.”
(You were glued?)
What these people usually mean, I think, is “figuratively.”
“That scared me figuratively to death.” (And that’s why I’m still here to tell the tale).
But people often mistakenly use literally for emphasis. It’s another way of saying really: “That really scared me to death.”
I understand the impulse. Literally has taken on that meaning in our language, adding emphasis, allowing us to slip an extra exclamation point into our speech when we need it. Figuratively just doesn’t cut it. In fact, it would have the opposite effect: It would undermine the emphasis.
That scared me “figuratively” to death sounds a lot less serious — and, frankly, it’s a lot less fun to say — than “literally!”
As Jerry Seinfeld says, when you stub your toe, it’s not nearly as satisfying to say “fudge!” or “snickers!”
Still, though, be careful with your use of literally when you speak. It could get you figuratively (although not literally) laughed out of the room.