We learn in English Literature that figurative language is language that is not “literally” true. For example, in the expression “the man is as tall as a tower,” the simile which compares the man to the tower should not be interpreted to mean that the height of the man is “literally” the height of the tower. It simply means that the man is unusually tall.
In every culture, knowingly or unknowingly, people make use of figurative language and other literary devices to express themselves imaginatively. In a shocking twist of events, the word “literal” itself has been turned into figurative language.
The word literal, in its rawest sense, means “meaning exactly as written or spoken.”
For example, if I say “the man’s head looks literally like a coconut,” you should take that to mean that the man’s head is exactly the size and shape of a coconut, with no eyes or nose – only the features of a coconut. But it is almost (if not completely) impossible for a man’s head to be “literally” like a coconut.
We often hear people say “the athlete was literally as fast as lightning.” But such a thing is simply not possible. This is what we call a blatant misuse of language. If a man is as fast as lightning, then he can move from America to Europe in a few short seconds.
Be careful when you use the word “literal.” Remember that literal is the opposite of figurative. Do not make figurative language which states that the comparison is “literally true,” if in fact, it is only figurative, and not literally true.
People do use the term “literal” in a “figurative sense” for emphasis. For example, the expression, “the bread was literally as hard as brick,” is used to emphasize that the bread was extremely hard. While such misappropriations are acceptable in informal speech and writing, they are considered “non-standard” English, and as such should be avoided if possible.