Literally ironic semantic shifts are actually very typical

I recently saw a story about a whimsical browser plug-in written by Mike Lazer-Walker(incidentally, a Hacker Schooler), that substitutes all occurrences of the word 'literally' with the word 'figuratively'. I posted it with (almost) no comment on Facebook, to which the only response was from a Waterloo friend, who actually found the substitution annoying, because, he argued, 'figuratively' is not what is usually meant.

Of course, he is right about that. 'Literally', like 'very', 'really', 'truly', and in some cases 'actually' [1], share a common semantic shift. They all originally meant something like 'do not take the following as exaggeration or metaphor' (insofar as any language use can be non-metaphorical), and have all become intensifiers. This is, of course, somewhat ironic (in the situational sense of 'ironic', which is neither the literary sense, nor the emerging sense of 'not what I wanted' [2]).

I don't cringe when I hear 'very', except insofar as it is often vacuous. That I do cringe on hearing 'literally' used as an intensifier is probably because, unlike 'very', the current use which is very old, this meaning of 'literally' emerged in my adulthood, and so it sounds unnatural to me. When wearing my linguist hat, I like to embrace diversity and change, rather than taking the stance that my dialect is 'correct'. The strongest stance I can fairly take is that in my dialect, the new meaning is unacceptable, or that using this meaning has certain social implications about the speaker.

But rather than taking the plug-in to be suggesting an actual solution, I take it in the spirit of Mark Twain's advice: 'Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.' Once the reader or writer sees 'figuratively', the appropriate transformation should be more readily obvious.

More likely, it is simply an elaborate joke made by a clever person while exploring how to write plug-ins. In any case, I liked the idea, both for its wit, and for the other fun linguistics ideas it points to, including, for example, tranzizzle (hat tip to Noah Smizzle).

The question I am left with is, given this development, what word do I use now if I want the literal meaning of literal?

[1] 'Actually' is often used to make a contrast.
[2] See this comic:


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