Senior editor with the Oxford English Dictionary, Fiona McPherson has written an excellent blog on the current furore about the use of the word “literally”. She notes that the usage of the word as a term of exaggeration, rather than actually meaning “really” goes back as far as
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that people often have strong opinions about “new” senses of words. Perhaps the question is not so much why do people have a problem with literally but rather why do lexicographers not have a problem? It comes down to that oft-spoke mantra – language changes. Our job is to document that for better or for worse. Except for us, there is no worse. We have to look at language objectively and dispassionately. Of course, part of our job is to give guidance on what might be acceptable when. That is why we label some words as slang and why we give a usage note at the offending sense of literally, making clear that although it is very common, it is considered irregular in standard English.
Which is why we literally cannot see what all the fuss is about.