People say things like, “I literally died.” What can we say about that? The obvious response is that the word “literally” is being used incorrectly; that what they really mean is “figuratively” or maybe “practically”. But let’s look at this another way. In the book, “On Photography” Susan Sontag discusses how in order to achieve shock in photographs “the ante goes up” with time. What was shocking 10 years ago is commonplace today, so today’s photograph must be more graphic; more disturbing; more repulsive to achieve the same shock value.
"I could have died!“ Is hyperbole, but it has become commonplace. "I practically died!”, also hyperbole, goes a step further, but even that has been around for a while, so we need to take it to another level — we need to raise the ante. So what is stronger than “practically”? “Literally!” It’s a logical progression, but what’s interesting here is that we have moved out of the realm of hyperbole into the realm of metaphor. “Literally” means “in reality”, but of course we don’t mean that in reality we died.
According to dictionary.com, “metaphor” means “a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance….” In the case of “I literally died”, reality is not literally applicable, but it is invoked to suggest a resemblance. We've run out of garden-variety hyperbole and must shift into overdrive: Reality itself has become the foil against which we make a comparison.