A wiser man than me would doubtless drop this. But, like a punch drunk boxer, I can’t help wading into the ring one more time. I apologize to lionello and to any others who are heartily sick of this, but I have to take one more stab at this issue.
I readily concede that it is wrong to say that people are “misusing” a word when they are using it in a commonly accepted way. I also concede that it is a mistake to try to use logic to discern what a word should mean. Plenty of seemingly (and perhaps actually) illogical usages are common, well accepted, and readily understood. Therefore, such usages are not wrong, and it is wrong to say that they are. And it is ironic that literally-used-figuratively (luf) haters try to enlist history, and accuse luf-haters of “changing” the meaning of a word, when history shows that luf-usage is certainly not new.
But, I think there is something wacky, for lack of a better term, about using the word literally to mean either that a statement is the literal truth OR that is not the literal truth. It is confusing for the same word to mean both a thing and it’s opposite, and the confusion is furthered when the word has a closely related term (literal), which is not, as far as I know, used to mean not-literal.
In some contexts, of course, what is meant is perfectly clear, and it would be both pedantic and disingenuous to pretend otherwise. But even when the sense is clear, ther is a brief moment of dissonance where my literal-minded mind says, really, this is literally x?, and then I figuratively whack myself in the head and say, oh, right, of course, by literally you mean not literal.
And sometimes the meaning is not clear. For example, dictionary.com lists the following as an example where “literally” means “exactly”: the city was literally destroyed. The sentence might well mean that a city was literally wiped off the face of the earth. But I think it is more likely that he speaker means either that the city was almost literally destroyed, or is using it hyperbolically and means, the damage was significant but did not come even close to completely obliterating it.
I think there is something clumsy, and confusing, about luf that goes beyond what is found in garden-variety cliches and lazy usage. Garden variety, of course, is a cliche, and perhaps a lazy one at that, but there is not anything intrinsically confusing or seemingly-contradictory about it. And, of course, any clumsy or lazy use of language can result in sentences that are confusing, jarring, or both. But luf, I think, is behind the game before the race has begun (or starts with a score of negative ten). A clever writer (no need to be elitist and restrict it to the “greats") can more than make up for this. And, of course, sometimes, for any of several reasons, luf is not only not jarring but feels perfectly “right.”. Maybe it is because something clever is being done with literally itself, or maybe the sentence is so enoyable for other reasons that the literally is barely noticeable, or it at least fails to spoil the fun.
Finally, after re-reading the article, I agree that I vastly underestimated its pomposity and elitism, and i agree that I was not nearly critical (in every sense of the word) enough of the writer’s assumptions about what Joyce had in mind when he “luffed” it. I do think it is fair to give a clearly talented writer the benefit of the doubt (I.e., to think to oneself, I’m sure s/he knew what s/he was doing) but it is another thing entirely to project on to another writer motives or meanings that would reinforce one’s biases, and the latter certainly seems to be what happened. For what it’s worth, I think Joyce was doing something clever with his use of literally, as Ulysses seems (to me) to be playing with the different senses of the word. But I don’t presume to know EXACTLY what he was up to, and would certainly not assume that what he was doing with it somehow dovetails with my language peeves.