spreading linguistic misinformation

Today's xkcd is timely...





...considering that Cambridge Linguistics Extra (at Linguist List) yesterday published a blogpost by me on linguistic misinformation. Click through for more...

The post is a promotion for my series in the journal English Today. So far, half of the series has been published--an article on the cognitive biases that colo(u)r our view of other Englishes and one on whether it makes sense to speak of 'British' or 'American' English. The series has allowed me to practi{c/s}e expressing ideas for the book I'm writing.

32 comments

  1. Neither term used in the cartoon was familiar to me, though I did guess correctly what 'contrail' meant, so I may have subconsciously remembered seeing it before.

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  2. Was "What time have you?" noteworthy because of "...have you?" vs. the more modern-sounding "...do you have?" or because of the idea of asking about a person "having" the time vs. asking what the time is with be verbs?

    At least in my mind (33, life-long Texan) "What time do you have?" is a current and valid way of asking what the time is, with the implication that the question is really "What time is your timepiece in particular displaying?" because the person asking doesn't have access to one, doesn't trust theirs, or doesn't trust the one of the person being asked. e.g., "What time do you have? I forgot to reset my watch when we got off the plane."

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  3. As an older American I'm familiar with the term contrail but don't think I've ever heard chemtrail used in its place. Chemtrail sounds like a propaganda term invented by eco-terrorists -- a shorthand way of reminding us that jets in the sky are constantly spewing toxic chemicals through their turbines. (Though I think the average contrail is mostly just a cloud of water vapor.)

    Still, I feel reasonably certain that contrail is a term a man -- and especially a man of a certain age, who grew up when flying by jet was still something of a novelty -- would be more likely to know than a woman. I realize I'm getting off topic, since the point of presenting the cartoon is to illustrate how American and British speakers of English fob off linguistic misinformation in the guise of helpfully explaining sociolinguistic differences. But I would think there'd be a more compelling example of linguistic misinformation than this one.

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  4. Yes, "chemtrail" is used by conspiracy theorists who believe contrails are evidence of chemical spraying by government planes. The precise chemicals vary according to who's telling you, but basically they're supposed to be useful in controlling the population in various ways. Google "chemtrail" and you'll find more than you ever wanted to know.

    (And yes, contrails are purely water-vapour clouds made by condensation.)

    At least the way I'm reading it, the cartoon isn't so much about misguided helpfulness as deliberate misinformation. The typically London game of making up outlandish things to tell tourists.

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  5. I'm British, and to me, "contrail" is the American term! I call them "vapour trails".

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  6. I'm an American woman, 54 (don't know if that's the same as "older") and I would say contrail. But I learned it from my son.

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  7. Yes, "chemtrail" is used by conspiracy theorists who believe contrails are evidence of chemical spraying by government planes.

    Thanks, Roberta. Don't know why it didn't occur to me that the term is used by conspiracy theorists and not eco-terrorists -- though I suppose they're not mutually exclusive.

    The number and outrageousness of conspiracy theories is getting out of hand! Once upon a time it was pretty much limited to the JFK assassination, but now it covers everything from the moon landing to 9/11 to Barack Obama's birthplace to the Sandy Hook massacre. How ironic is it that Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web to make it easy for scientists to share information ... and his handiwork has made it even easier to share pseudoscientific rubbish.

    Lynne: I think this cartoon may be trying to make more of a sociopolitical point than a sociolinguistic one.

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  8. I'm English, and they were vapour trails to me, growing up. I recall back in the early sixties there were vapour trail toys, model aircraft that came with a long white wire with a sucker on one end. You'd stick the sucker on the wall or a window, the other end of the wire to the back of the toy aircraft, and you could pretend the wire was the vapour trail. I was impressed by the advertising, but once I got one home, I thought it looked very unrealistic in practice.

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  9. I agree with Mrs Redboots and Paul Dormer. I'm English, and have only heard of 'vapour trail'. I've never heard of either a contrail or a chemtrail. As child, I can remember being told by my mother that they aren't caused by the exhaust from jet engines which was actually air, but by the thin atmosphere at high altitudes. The Flying Fortresses that the US brought over in the later years of the war, and which flew higher than other aircraft, also produced vapour trails.

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  10. David Arthur07 May, 2016 17:20

    'Vapour trail' is what I've always heard too (Canada).

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  11. I'm English and it's always been "contrail" to me. Also, I flew in NZ and it was contrail there too. I also remember a British model aircraft kit maker called Contrail.

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  12. It's perhaps worth noting that XKCD always has an extension or second joke in hover text. In the case of this comic, that hover text reads:

    'Astronomy (or "astrology" in British English) is the study of ...'

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  13. I'm British, and agree that "vapour trail" is name I'd use.

    It's true that what you see is water. But it's droplets, not vapour (which is invisible). But, in amongst those droplets are the by-products of burning jet fuel. Mostly water, but importantly CO2 (non toxic, but still an important polluting chemical), and also some toxic chemicals. The quantities probably don't significantly contribute to human health problems, except around airports.

    But, the "chemtrail" conspiracy theory goes beyond the claim that vapour trails are toxic. The claim is they're evidence of a deliberate attempt to poison people: beyond mere negligence.

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  14. "Contrail" is what I've always heard (AmE, definitely "older": 62).

    Dick Hartzell's comment on the value of Internet research reminds me of what Evan Morris, the Word Detective, said: “It’s like the Tragedy of the Commons in reverse, where, instead of being stripped clean, the Commons has become a ginormous junk shop.” http://www.word-detective.com/2015/04/go-bananas/

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  15. "It's true that what you see is water. But it's droplets, not vapour (which is invisible). But, in amongst those droplets are the by-products of burning jet fuel. Mostly water, but importantly CO2 (non toxic, but still an important polluting chemical), and also some toxic chemicals. The quantities probably don't significantly contribute to human health problems, except around airports."

    There are plenty of British references to "contrails", including by retired Spitfire pilots who noticed the phenomenon in the late 1930's. They realised that they only occurred under certain conditions and tried to avoid them.

    For example:

    http://www.raf.mod.uk/bbmf/theaircraft/recspitrayholmes.cfm

    http://www.pprune.org/spectators-balcony-spotters-corner/522768-odd-contrail.html

    https://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1942/1942%20-%201939.html

    http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/documents/Research/RAF-Historical-Society-Journals/Journal-10-Seminar-Photo-Recce-in-WWII.pdf

    http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=48191&fileId=S1350482799001115

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  16. Indeed, there are more BrE references to 'contrails' than to 'vapour trails' in the GloWBE corpus.

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  17. madseavets

    There are plenty of British references to "contrails", including by retired Spitfire pilots who noticed the phenomenon in the late 1930's.

    The OED hasn't caught up yet but records both condensation trail and vapour trail from about the same time. In both cases the reference is to a Spitfire or other British fighter planes.

    • The 1942 use of condensation trail was written by a Spitfire pilot
    • The 1941 use of vapour trail was in the popular illustrated magazine Picture Post

    This makes me more confident in my impression that condensation trail is a technical term used by experts in aviation, while the rest of us (in Britain) say and understand vapour trail.

    Since condensation trail was never (I believe) a popular term, we didn't feel the need to shorten it to contrail. The earliest OED quote for this is in a popular illustrated magazine on the other side of the Atlantic. A 1945 edition of Saturday Evening Post.

    If Spitfire pilots shortened concentration trail as you say, it didn't escape into popular parlance here. We were already saying vapour trail.

    OK Contrail just may have briefly existed in common parlance in British English. But if so, it must have disappeared pretty quickly since the Brits on this blog just didn't recognise it before it was explained.

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  18. The fist Spitfire article explains "Contrail" as "pilot's jargon. "Vapour" trail doesn't make a lot of sense though, as it's condensation and only occurs under certain conditions.

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  19. I can't speak to the BrE prevalence of the term, but contrails were a quite well known and regularly observed side effect of WWII bomber streams. Large raids would very commonly leave wide swaths of contrail clouds that were used by German fighter aircraft to find the bombers. Under whatever name, they were seen by everyone in the south of England (at least) regularly throughout the war and years before the first jet aircraft. (They were not unique to, or even particularly associated with, Spitfires or other fighter aircraft.)

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  20. Many people don't get that water vapor is invisible. Heck, I had a science textbook with a picture captioned "water in all three phases". Hence, you often see terms like "steam" or "vapo(u)r" describing things that are really condensation. So "contrail" may be more correct (though I ha to look up what the "con" part stands for), I wouldn't worry about this too much.

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  21. madseavets

    "Vapour" trail doesn't make a lot of sense though,

    It 'makes sense' in that we Brits understand the term. I doubt whether many of us understand contrail. In fact for me contrail didn't make any sense at all until I saw an explanation here.

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  22. Boris

    Hence, you often see terms like "steam" or "vapo(u)r" describing things that are really condensation.

    If a word is used to describe something, then that's what the word means.

    OK, physicists use terms like vapour more narrowly than the rest of us. But we know what we mean.

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  23. The OED deftly navigates the popular vs scientific senses of steam:

    6.

    a. The vapour into which water is converted when heated. In popular language, applied to the visible vapour which floats in the air in the form of a white cloud or mist, and which consists of minute globules or vesicles of liquid water suspended in a mixture of gaseous water and air. (Also sometimes applied to the vapour arising from other liquids when heated.) In modern scientific and technical language, applied only to water in the form of an invisible gas.

    Under this they add in small print:

    The invisible ‘steam’, in the modern scientific sense, is, when its temperature is lowered, converted into the white vapour called ‘steam’ in popular language, and this under continued cooling, becomes ‘water’ in the liquid form.

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  24. "(They were not unique to, or even particularly associated with, Spitfires or other fighter aircraft.)"

    No, but they were first noticed with Spitfires, Bf 109's and Hurricanes because they were the first production aircraft that flew high enough. High flying prototypes and research aircraft would have produced them but they wouldn't have been common enough for people on the ground to notice. The preceding fighters and the British and German bombers didn't fly high enough.

    "I doubt whether many of us understand contrail. In fact for me contrail didn't make any sense at all until I saw an explanation here."
    The fact that a lot of Brits don't understand the term doesn't make it an Americanism..

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  25. madseavets

    The fact that a lot of Brits don't understand the term doesn't make it an Americanism..

    No, it makes it an obscure technical term and/or professional jargon in BrE. Apparently this is not the case for Am.

    Vapour trail has been the normal BrE term for most of my life at least. Actually, I suspect it's been the norm for the whole of my life.

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  26. I doubt whether many of us understand contrail. In fact for me contrail didn't make any sense at all until I saw an explanation here.

    To be fair, I did know the term contrail, as I read a lot mof American books and comics growing up, but for me, I would always say "vapour trail".

    I found this blog post about the vapour trail toy. 1:200 scale was most disappointing for me. Airfix model kits were usually 1:72.

    http://www.scalemodelnews.com/2012/03/oh-nostalgia-models-wed-completely.html

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  27. I found this blog post about the vapour trail toy. 1:200 scale was most disappointing for me. Airfix model kits were usually 1:72.

    Paul: thanks for sharing the link. If nothing else, the brand name -- Vapour Trails -- demonstrates that this has long been the default expression in the UK. (I read the blog post and am now wondering about the word "flex", which the blog notes is what came in the box with the Vapour Trails jet and was used to simulate the vapour trail. What kind of material was it?)

    FYI: so far as I know (not surprisingly), these toys were not sold in the US. If nothing else American kids would have wanted American jets, and it appears that even the Vapour Trails jets weren't a success in the UK. But when the blog referenced Corgi Toys (which apparently owned Playcraft, the makers of Vapour Trails jets, at the time), I perked right up. I had a number of Corgi Toys cars as a kid, including James Bond's legendary Aston Martin -- complete with ejector seat and a raisable bulletproof shield in the back. Corgi's only competition in the US came from Matchbox Toys, whose cars were far smaller, less detailed, and other than wheels had no moving parts. Corgi Toys cars were everything a kid could ask for.

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  28. Flex in this case meant a stiff metal wire coated in white plastic. The problem, as I recall was that if you kept bending it, you got kinks in it that couldn't be removed and made the set-up look even more unrealistic.

    Flex is a slightly old-fashioned term for an electrical connector cable. So you might talk about a kettle flex.

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    Replies
    1. Now there's another one.
      I never heard 'flex' until I went to school - we just said 'wire' at home - but when I first encountered the puzzling American 'cordless', my father told me that Americans called that a 'cord'.

      Delete
    2. Now there's another one.
      I never heard 'flex' until I went to school - we just said 'wire' at home - but when I first encountered the puzzling American 'cordless', my father told me that Americans called that a 'cord'.

      Delete
  29. "the brand name -- Vapour Trails -- demonstrates that this has long been the default expression in the UK."

    What about the brand name "Contrail":

    http://oldmodelkits.com/index.php?detail=18264&page=673&soldarchive=llastsoldarchive


    I agree that contrail is an aviation term but is it really the most common term in the US?

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  30. I agree that contrail is an aviation term but is it really the most common term in the US?

    As I said in my first comment about the term, I felt "reasonably certain that contrail is a term a man -- and especially a man of a certain age, who grew up when flying by jet was still something of a novelty -- would be more likely to know than a woman."

    I confirmed my suspicion a few minutes ago when I pulled up an image of a contrail on my phone and, pointing to the white streak, asked my wife and 18-year-old daughter if they knew what it was called. Both offered frivolous guesses they knew were incorrect: my wife laughingly suggested jetstream and my daughter skywriting. Neither mentioned vapo{u}r trail, either.

    Of course, my wife and daughter are a pretty small sample.

    So whether it's the most common term or not I consider a little beside the point. Vapour trail may be on the tip of everyone's tongue in the UK, but neither it nor contrail is in my view in common parlance in the US.

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)