If literally really has flipped, then why don’t we find the reversal in contexts like this? -
A: When I told him the news, he exploded.
B: He actually exploded?!
A: No, of course not. I was speaking literally.
I’m not aware of any evidence that things are moving in that direction.
But what’s going on, then? The speaker who says “He literally exploded” could have made a roughly equivalent claim by substituting figuratively for literally: if the literally version is true (/false), the figuratively version is true (/false). Doesn’t it follow that when they saidliterally they actually meant the same thing as figuratively?
Not at all. In “He literally exploded”, literally intensifies the figurative meaning of exploded: it means something like “He completely exploded”, “He totally exploded”. It’s not saying anything about the literal / figurative dimension. When people say “He literally exploded”, they don’t intend to say “He figuratively exploded”. That is a claim they might be happy to make if they felt the need to, but it’s not the one they are trying to make. [Full post]