I hereby declare that the word literally has not lost its meaning, despite a rash of rumors to the contrary.
What would it even mean for a word to lose its meaning? A word can change from one meaning to another, certainly. Maybe you could argue that a word that has dropped out of usage has lost its meaning..
You hear complaints of that sort all the time, but what is being missed is the fact that language is fluid. Meanings evolve as the need arises (and there are many kinds of needs). Speakers each carry a somewhat different representation of the language in their heads, and once like-minded speakers agree on a novel usage and adapt it into their own representations, language evolves.
The debate over literally is literally nothing new. Turning to old faithful, the American Heritage dictionary:
Usage Note: For more than a hundred years, critics have remarked on the incoherency of using literally in a way that suggests the exact opposite of its primary sense of “in a manner that accords with the literal sense of the words.” In 1926, for example, H.W. Fowler cited the example “The 300,000 Unionists … will be literally thrown to the wolves.” The practice does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself—if it did, the word would long since have come to mean “virtually” or “figuratively”—but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive, as in They had literally no help from the government on the project, where no contrast with the figurative sense of the words is intended.
So literally has been known to be a general intensive for quite some time. Why the fuss now?
Twitter is my new linguistic data collection engine, btw. Just some of the multitude of great results:
Dictionary.com, “literally,” in The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Source location: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/literally. Available: http://dictionary.reference.com. Accessed: January 27, 2009.