1677: Contrails

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Contrails
Astronomy (or "astrology" in British English) is the study of ...
Title text: Astronomy (or "astrology" in British English) is the study of ...

Explanation

Contrails (short for "condensation trails") are trails of vapor produced by aircraft exhaust, and are composed primarily of water. The Chemtrail conspiracy theory claims that contrails lasting unusually long are actually chemical or biological agents sprayed into the air for sinister purposes. Here, White Hat notices that there are a lot of contrails in the air. Cueball corrects him, saying that in American English, contrails are called chemtrails. This, however, is incorrect.

This is another comic in the My Hobby series. Many of these comics involve Cueball giving misleading information about pedantic terms, such as 1405: Meteor.

The title text implies that astronomy and astrology are synonymous, though astrology is used in British English. However, this is incorrect. Though both involve studying celestial objects, astrology is about interpreting positions of celestial objects as having influences on human affairs, while astronomy is the scientific study of celestial objects on a universal scale.

Contrail stands for “condensation trail”, which is the trailing cloud often found after jet planes that fly by. Itʼs formed from water sublimating on jet fuel exhaustions, some impurities of which provide bases for ice crystals to cumulate on. Some would dissipate in minutes, but others can last for hours or even longer.

Chemtrail, specifically referring to contrails that last for very long, is a conspiracist term that states such clouds can last so long because there are other chemicals added in jet fuel, thus achieving malicious results. Itʼs not approved by scientific community.

The joke is that British English and American English often call the same object with different terms, and one can often learn new words for a simple thing. This, however is not the case in this comic; contrail and chemtrail do not refer to the same thing, the latter being only a part of the former. And it being xkcd, we can assume that chemtrail is a term that is frowned upon. Thus the comic states it as misinformation.

The title text includes a similar situation: astronomy is serious study about things in outer space, like stars, planets, and galaxies. Astrology, however, is a system that infers one’s personalities and characteristics from zodiacs of her date of birth, which is a constellation assigned to a period of time in a year. The same system can also derive predictions about future, especially that of a relationship. Some would argue that astrology shows statistical values, but itʼs hardly science as by the standard of scientific community.

Given that the "American English" version is the conspiracy theory one for contrails/chemtrails, while who confuses astronomy and astrology is not fully clear, it is possible that the rest of the explanation of the astronomy vs astrology text would describe astrology. In that case, this could be a comment on the educational status in US vs UK, where the conspiracy theories and superstition (astrology) are much more visble in the US that in the UK (or Europe in general).

Transcript

[Cueball and a White Hat are walking. White Hat is looking up to the sky.]
White Hat: Lots of contrails today.
Cueball: Oh, you must be from the UK. In American English it's "Chemtrail".
[Caption under the panel]
My hobby: Spreading linguistic misinformation


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Discussion

Aside: worst name ever for university department: Astronomy and Cosmology - it's almost as if they want people to make the association... 141.101.104.20 10:58, 6 May 2016 (UTC)

Love the title text, you can choose to laugh or take offence irrespective of where you call home. Which you do says more about you than the text. Toltec (talk) 11:41, 6 May 2016 (UTC)

Worth noting that 'contrails' is itself a North Americanism? 108.162.229.111 12:03, 6 May 2016 (UTC)

The final paragraph does not logically follow from the comic or from the explanation. He's hooking different pseudoscience terms on different cultures (astrology on the UK and chemtrails on the US) so the comic doesn't take a stance on which country's educational system is better or more prone to superstitions than the other. 108.162.245.106 15:04, 6 May 2016 (UTC)

I've always called them vapour trails (north west England) -- 141.101.98.137 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I can tell. I didn't know the english even put a 'u' in 'vapor'. 108.162.237.178 17:34, 19 December 2016 (UTC)

🐍 Its Canadian usage as well. Rush has an album by that name, and a song titled, and referencing them in the lyrics. video These Are Not The Comments You Are Looking For (talk) 20:28, 7 May 2016 (UTC) (Can't figure out how to prevent the font from changing)

The comic reminded me of the Hungarian Phrasebook sketch from Monty Python - basically someone who enjoys causing confusion for its own sake between speakers of (in this case, slightly) different languages. 108.162.237.175 18:21, 6 May 2016 (UTC)Pat

I grew up (US Midwest then Northwest) calling them "plane tracks" (by extension from "train tracks," I suppose) and later, "jet trails." I don't think I've ever /heard/ (as opposed to read) either "chemtrails" or "contrails," but they're both far outside my normal areas of work/interest, that there never would have been a reason for them to come up or pass by. 108.162.221.98 19:01, 6 May 2016 (UTC)

For difference in vocabulary between British English and American English, see Lists of words having different meanings in American and British English JakubNarebski (talk) 17:44, 7 May 2016 (UTC)

Contrails is more of a technical term, I think. I grew up in the southeast and currently live in the midwest and I only ever hear them called jet trails or vapor trails, only rarely does someone say contrails, and they're usually fairly technical people. 108.162.219.43 02:34, 8 May 2016 (UTC)

Should we mention the alternate meanings of "Con", especially Confidence trick would seem relevant here. Condor70 (talk) 06:42, 9 May 2016 (UTC)

I don't think that's relevant at all, the term "contrail" as mentioned is from "condensation", i.e. "to condense". I don't think a full etymology is merited on this page. 108.162.237.178 17:33, 19 December 2016 (UTC)