"Literally" and "figuratively" are words whose primary meanings are opposites. The term "literally," however, also can be used as hyperbole to mean the same as "figuratively." By its main definition, "literally" means that an expression or phrase is not exaggerated or embellished — it means exactly what the words suggest. The definition of "figuratively" is that the words are metaphoric — they are a figure of speech meant to convey something different from their literal meaning. Many words and phrases can be used both literally and figuratively.
Examples of Literal Phrases
A person might use "literally" to emphasize that what is being said is the absolute truth. For example, a man might say, "I literally pass out at the sight of blood" to emphasize that he does not merely get queasy when he sees blood, he actually loses consciousness. A girl might say, "My sister literally took every dress I had in my closet" to emphasize that her sister did not leave a single dress in the closet.
Figures of Speech
When a person says something that is not meant to be taken literally — or meaning exactly what the words say — the phrase is being used figuratively. For example, a boy might say, "When I heard the ice cream truck outside, I flew out the front door and out to the street." Of course, the boy did not fly, he merely ran quickly, so the word "flew" is being used figuratively. When someone says, "I died laughing," he or she did not actually die, so the phrase is only a figure of speech.
When people use figures of speech, they often do not point them out, especially when they are obvious. For example, a woman probably would not say, "I froze to death, figuratively speaking," because if she had actually frozen to death, she would not be speaking. Likewise, the boy who "flew out the front door" would not need to point out that he cannot actually fly. At times, though, it is necessary to include a disclaimer such as "figuratively speaking" to clarify whether something is being said literally or figuratively.
"Literally" as Hyperbole
Confusion sometimes arises when the term "literally" is used as hyperbole, to exaggerate what is being said beyond its literal meaning. Although some people consider this usage of "literally" to be incorrect, this definition does appear in major dictionaries. An example of this usage might be a theater critic who says that an actress "literally stole the show." Adding "literally" emphasizes or exaggerates the fact that the actress was the highlight of the performance, rather than implying that she was guilty of some type of theft. Another example might be a teenage girl who says, "I literally wanted to die when my parents showed up at the party." The word "literally" adds emphasis to the girl's embarrassment rather than implying that she actually had suicidal thoughts.