"This whale... was literally saying, 'Thanks. Thanks for helping me out.'" Yes, someone actually said that on NPR's "Radiolab" recently. As a friend of mine put it, "I didn't know whales spoke English! Imagine making a thhh sound through a baleen!"
Granted, even reputable dictionaries do give an extended definition of "literally" as "in effect, virtually," but the word seems to have become something of a fad lately. There's even a hilarious blog devoted to chronicling abuse of "literally." I'm tempted to try to find some sort of sociological basis for this phenomenon — is there now a cultural fixation with literality, a backlash against insincerity and irony? — but there's probably nothing to it except mindless disregard for the language. Most likely, these things just erupt of their own accord.
Remember last year's "Really, [person's name]? Really?" With the first "really" pitched relatively high, and the second one pitched even higher, almost at a squeal. People spat that one out like it was a computer macro, and you could tell they felt really cool when they did it, like little kids when they speak into a walkie-talkie. Now "really?" is disappearing, thankfully. But why? Have people suddenly become incapable of disbelief at the bad behavior of others? Or was it just some vapid trend that folks mindlessly repeated as if they had little digital samplers attached to their vocal chords and then abandoned when they got tired of it?
Or how about the truly tacky "douche" and its even more repulsive adjectival sibling, "douchey"? Ugh, I feel sullied even typing those words. Starting a little over a year ago, people uttered them with obsessive-compulsive regularity and little provocation. Now it's almost gone, despite the fact that ignominious behavior has not suddenly abated, as far as I can tell from the newspapers.
Last year, I was in a band with a guy who would parrot those memes reliably and with unironic gusto. He was the kind of guy who did fist bumps and said "WAZZZUUPPP!" and "THAT'S what I'm talkin' about!" when they were trendy. One day last year this eager magpie hit a linguistic grand slam. He was driving me back from practice when someone cut in front of us. And he said "Really, douche? Really?" I literally wanted to scream.
These things are fairly innocuous in themselves, despite the fact that they make me retch violently. But since language and thought are so intertwined, it makes me wonder whether ideas and opinions also get transmitted and popularized the same way. Maybe these inane memes, like weather balloons that trace the path of a jetstream, are a visible marker of the otherwise invisible, revealing the routes by which ideas travel.