Recently I've heard American TV commentators say "[a person] was literally decimated" and "[a Senator] was literally thrown under the bus". In the first case I think the person was not actually 10% killed, but in the second, I believe they meant that 57 members of the US Senate carried #58 onto Constitution Avenue and threw him under a (hopefully moving) bus.
Are usages like these normal or acceptable now? I find them grating, myself.
The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary give these senses:
literally 2 : in effect : virtually <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins>
with the following usage note:
Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.
and for decimate, they have the following senses, with no usage note:
decimate 3 a : to reduce drastically especially in number <cholera decimated the population>
b : to cause great destruction or harm to <firebombs decimated the city> <an industry decimated by recession>
The New Oxford American Dictionary reports the following note in the usage section:
In recent years, an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in nonliteral contexts, for added effect: they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground. This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal English.
In formal sentences, literally should be used as in I told him I never wanted to see him again, but I didn't expect him to take it literally.
With regards to decimation, the original meaning is derived from a practice in the military of Ancient Rome. Quoted from this page:
A unit selected for punishment by
decimation was divided into groups of
ten; each group drew lots (Sortition),
and the soldier on whom the lot fell
was executed by his nine comrades,
often by stoning or clubbing. The
remaining soldiers were given rations
of barley instead of wheat and forced
to sleep outside of the Roman
Because the punishment fell by lot,
all soldiers in the group were
eligible for execution, regardless of
the individual degree of fault, or
rank and distinction.
Indeed, this word has been so greatly abused over time (perhaps through ignorance) that its more general meaning of "to destroy" or "to severely harm" is now virtually accepted.
People often use the word "literally" when they really mean "virtually." As in, "Many people in America have smart phones, netbooks, or laptops virtually attached to their hips." Obviously people don't actually have laptops attached to their hips via some leather case with a belt loop, thus you cannot say that they literally have them attached to their hips.