The other day on the radio I heard someone say that the United Auto Workers were "literally hemorrhaging members."
Literally? I thought.
If a hemorrhage-- by definition an unimpeded flow of blood-- is literal, the only thing that can flow is blood. "Literal," from the Latin littera, letter, means "to the letter," or "actually, really, truly, with a one-to-one correspondence."
Then I googled "literal hemorrhage" and noted that the phrase is used in a very narrow semantic field: you can literally hemorrhage people-- customers, students, union members-- and money, but not tomato soup, vodka, or hair spray. As people have blood, and are sometimes considered the "life blood" of an organization, and as money is what gives life to organizations, "hemorrhage" is an appropriate metaphor for a group losing effectiveness, productivity, or viability.
I would be in favor of saying "We are metaphorically hemorrhaging money." But that lacks punch. You want to have that "literally" in there to emphasize how serious the situation is.
What about "We are hemorrhaging money," and take out the adverb completely? Hey, less is more, as everyone knows-- well, not everyone.
Maybe we should just change the definition of literally:
literally (adv.) [lih-tuhr-uh-lee] Lat. littera, letter. 1. Truly, really, and to a great degree, but only in a metaphorical sense.
Then I looked up literally on dictionary.com, and found they already had changed the definition:
4.in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.
—Usage note: Since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning “actually, without exaggeration”: The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries. The parties were literally trading horses in an effort to reach a compromise. The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing [emphasis mine]. Although this use of literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs. The same might often be said of the use of literally in its earlier sense “actually”: The garrison was literally wiped out: no one survived.
Those dictionary guys are literally up to date.