IPrC 14: My Hobby

Just in: confirmation that Elizabeth Traugott and Arnold Zwicky’s abstract for a paper at the 14th International Pragmatics Conference in Antwerp next July has been accepted. The abstract (somewhat revised):

Derailing default interpretations: investigating the MY HOBBY webcomics by Randall Munroe.

Cartoons and comic strips have main content – visuals, usually (though not always) with speech from the characters. Visual literacy, cognitive processing and how we derive meaning from sequential images have been the main topics of research on the language of comics to date (e.g. Cohn et al. 2012, Cohn 2013). But there is also metatext.

Metatext in cartoons and comic strips is of at least six types, sometimes in combination: inserts, captions, titles, footnotes, and, on the internet, mouseovers and accompanying text (Zwicky 2014). Typically metatext is designed to guide the way to read the comic. We zero in on how metatext may also contribute to online pragmatic reinterpretation of the text. In this paper we investigate the role of metatext in the webcomic series MY HOBBY by Randall Munroe.

Webcomics provide an exceptionally rich medium for exploiting metatext on several levels. For example, a character (A) in xkcd 559 webcomic by Randall Munroe says to an addressee (B): ‘I THINK HE’S INTERNALIZED HIS GIRLFRIEND’S ATTITUDES—NO PUN INTENDED—AND SO…’. This comic in the MY HOBBY series has the subtitle ‘APPENDING “NO PUN INTENDED” TO LINES WITH NO PUN IN THEM’. An insert, beginning with ‘THREE HOURS LATER’, depicts B as agonizing over what was meant: “INTERNALIZED”? LIED? ANALYZED? OR IS IT “ATTITUDES”? DAMMIT”, and a mouseover that addresses the reader directly.

The content of this webcomic is a conversational exchange-type that has been very little studied. In American street language it is called “messing with someone’s mind”. It is a form of an especially aggressive teasing that involves saying something that is thought-provoking but not evidently appropriate to the situation at hand — often communicated with a formulaic expression like “no pun intended” or “pardon my French”. In the xkcd case, the recipient has been tricked into spending hours fretting to make sense of the original.

The subtitle frames the content as a ‘messing-with X’s mind’ exchange. Without the subtitle, readers might, like B, fail to recognize that A is being uncooperative. Using a subtitle flouts conventions of comics, most of which do not have them, and also serves as a directive how to read the text. The treatment of B’s response as an insert, rather than as a separate panel, undercuts the potential narrative implied by ‘THREE HOURS LATER’, and focuses attention on the length of time that A’s cliché has occupied B’s attention. To fully appreciate the webcomic, readers must understand the multiple conventions, both conversational (in what A says to B and what B thinks internally), and metatextual (in what the author conveys indirectly and directly to the reader).

We analyze xkcd 559 and several other webcomics in the MY HOBBY series to investigate the types of linguistic function that metatext has in Munroe’s work, with particular attention to the way metatext is used to derail potential default interpretations.


Cohn, Neil. 2013. The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. London: Bloomsbury.

Cohn, Neil, Martin Paczynski, Ray Jackendoff, Phil J. Holcomb, Gina R. Kuperberg. 2012. (Pea)nuts and bolts of visual narrative: Structure and meaning in sequential image comprehension. Cognitive Psychology 65: 1-38.

Munroe, Randall. xkcd 559.

Munroe, Randall. 2014. MY HOBBY. March 23rd, 2009. Index of cartoons in this category.

Zwicky, Arnold. 2014. Metatext in the comics. Paper presented at SemFest 15, Stanford University, March 14th.

One Response to “IPrC 14: My Hobby”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Two notes: (1) there is a severe length limitation on these abstracts; a somewhat more relaxed discussion of the Traugott/Zwicky paper is in the posting of mine linked to in the abstract. (2) these international conferences are truly gigantic affairs, with a great many sessions on topics related to pragmatics, broadly understood.

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