Is the word "literally" used appropriately in the following sentence from XKCD?

I just realized these are literally the same people

xkcd: Fashion Police and Grammar Police

Source for those unfamiliar with XKCD

  • Proofreading questions are off-topic unless a specific source of concern in the text is clearly identified. – Hot Licks Sep 19 '16 at 17:46
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    (Why would it not be appropriate?) – Hot Licks Sep 19 '16 at 17:47

It depends on what you consider appropriate. In the case of the linked comic, it is not a correct use of the word literally, drawing from its definition. On a practical level, the meaning is clear (that the two groups are indistinguishable based on behaviors), and the usage is common (if difficult to defend).

The comic depicts two groups, and to the extent that any of the stick figures have details that allow us to distinguish between them they are clearly different individuals on each side, not the (plausibly) same individuals rallying around different signs. Though, being familiar with other xkcd comics, I would suspect that the author was very deliberate in choosing the caption and would be amused to incite grammar policing of the cartoon.

  • Please check a dictionary, that distinction has long fallen. – Helmar Sep 19 '16 at 18:16
  • You are not mistaken. However, it would seem to cause an issue when a word is defined in mutually exclusive ways simultaneously. Literally defined as "emphasizing strong feeling while being not literally true" should give pause, at least until the prior definition is relegated to archaic usages and marked so. If your position is that the traditional (and still primary, by my dictionary) definition is no longer valid due to a shift in usage, that's one thing. Otherwise, your answer strikes me as every bit as pedantic as the older position you deride. – Upper_Case Sep 19 '16 at 18:50
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    It's a paradox that Randall Munroe managed to capture perfectly. He took the second sense that's written down in the dictionary literally in the first meaning. ;) – Helmar Sep 19 '16 at 18:56
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    It's a clever comic (as it always is). Straddling the two definitions introduces ambiguity into statements (the ability to distinguish between literal and non-literal is lost), and unless that ambiguity is intended (as in the comic), literally is an inferior word. In that sense, if we are using the dictionary as the arbiter, it may well be the case that this comic is the only appropriate usage. – Upper_Case Sep 19 '16 at 19:14

Is it appropriate? Or is it technically correct according to the dictionary definition of the word "literally"?

It is not technically correct as their are obviously people who care a lot about grammar who do not care about fashion and people who care about fashion who do not care about grammar so they are not literally the same people.

However, it is appropriate because the technical misuse of the word "literally" is part of the joke.

  • The comic legend expresses the opinion of one individual. It may well be that that person believes that the two groups are literally identical. There is no indication to the contrary. – Hot Licks Sep 19 '16 at 18:05
  • Please check a dictionary, that distinction has long fallen. – Helmar Sep 19 '16 at 18:16

It depends on how literal you want to take literally. The words comes to us from the Latin littera (letter of the alphabet), and it's used to describe exact correspondences, "to the letter" in the idiomatic expression. This is often seen in translations of foreign words. For example from Theory of Language: The Representational Function of Language by Karl Bühler:

Compounds such as 'Fingerhut [thimble, literally "finger-hat"], Handschuh [glove, literally "hand-shoe"], Tischbein [table-leg] are metaphors....

But the word has a hyperbolic use --

I was so embarrassed that I literally wished I was dead.

This is an exaggeration of my feeling of really, really wishing I hadn't been there. In your example, it's an exaggeration of the scope of the correspondence. The statement isn't a true claim as a statement about a census, i.e., we can find people in the fashion police who don't care about grammar and vice versa. But the statement is claimed as true about a consensus, i.e., that the correspondence of attitudes of the two groups is exact.

The exaggerated sense of literally can give it the sense of the word's "literal" opposite, namely figuratively as in

He literally destroyed his opponent in the debate.

  • Ah, the driveby downvoter strikes again. Is the answer wrong? incomplete? unclear? Answers to these questions are likely of interest to at least the OP, but he won't know because of this particular discourtesy allowed by the community. – deadrat Sep 19 '16 at 22:16

This is appropriate on all possible levels.

If you have a look at a dictionary, literally has already lost the pedantic meaning the joke refers to. Just for example, both, MW and ODO already list the meaning everyone complains about and neither of the other answerers has bothered to check.

literally: in effect (MW)

Used for emphasis while not being literally true. (ODO)

So apart from the displayed self-righteous grammar police this usage is completely appropriate. Even if it wasn't there is such a thing as artistic license, which employed in a joke makes it appropriate on its own.

  • Oh my, the grammar police is down voting my post. – Helmar Sep 19 '16 at 19:32

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