1052: Every Major's Terrible

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Every Major's Terrible
Someday I'll be the first to get a Ph. D in 'Undeclared'.
Title text: Someday I'll be the first to get a Ph. D in 'Undeclared'.


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The header refers to an satiric opera from the 19th century. Modern Major-General's Song is a patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan's 1879 comic opera The Pirates of Penzance. The song satirises the idea of the "modern" educated British Army officer of the latter 19th century. It is one of the most difficult patter songs to perform, due to the fast pace and tongue-twisting nature of the lyrics. Here's a YouTube video of "I Am the Very Model of A Modern Major's General" [1] for those who need to get the tune.

Major general is a military rank in many countries. Here's is Tom Lehrer's Elements.[2] And here is Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins.

The panels are showing a song, some sentences are going over two or more panels. The refrain is like this: "put me down as "undecided" - Every Major's Terrible".

In panel 4, Methyl acetate is the solvent used to remove stamps from their envelope.

In panel 8, underwater basket weaving is a commonly used metaphor for any college major that is easy or worthless.

Panel 13 refers to the inability of seismology to reliably predict catastrophic earthquakes, even after centuries of extensive research.

In panel 14, the formal logic proposition "X ∴ ∃X" says "I say there's this thing called X, therefore, there exists this thing called X".

In panel 15, programming languages, like Lisp, use parenthesis as part of their syntax. Typically, a open parenthesis will be closed with a closing parenthesis. If not the code is not properly formatted for presentation, it can make it difficult for a programmer to determine where the unbalanced parenthesis begins or ends.

In panel 16, virology is the study of infectious diseases. The symbol above the central figure is the biohazard symbol.

In panel 19, Richard Feynman was a 20th-century physicist known for his sense of fun, including being photographed for one of his books while holding a bongo drum.

In panel 20, a redirect on Wikipedia is a page which immediately sends the visitor to a different page. This implies that the title of the first is either a synonym or a sub-topic of the second. Physics majors usually learn to code, and the standard joke is that they invariably get hired as computer programmers after graduation. The Wikipedia page physics major didn't actually exist when this comic was published. It was created the same day, but as a redirect to physics education. In the subsequent days, there were dozens of instances of people changing it to redirect to engineer, usually reverted within minutes.

In panel 25, supermoon and zodiac are terms invented not by astronomers, but rather by early astrologists.

In panel 26, agronomy is the science of farming, while agoraphobia is the fear of wide open spaces.

In panel 27, herpetology is the study of reptiles, while ophiophobia is the fear of snakes.

In panel 28, as the pun sugests, gastroenterology is the study of the human digestive system.

In panel 29, pre-med is a major chosen by students hoping to go on to medical school and eventually become doctors. Medical school is extremely competitive and usually requires a very high undergraduate GPA for prospective students.

In panel 30, the text is in all lower-case and strangely laid out compared to text in other panels. All lower case and "free" layout are both associated with 20th century "Modernist" poetry, especially the works of e.e.cummings.

In panel 33 and 34, the singer refers to economics. Economists claim that economics is a science like any other; scientists in other fields sometimes disagree.

And Sophie's Choice is any dilemma where choosing one cherished person or thing over the other will result in the death or destruction of the other, derived from the theme of the novel, and has also been turned into a romantic drama film.

From the title text 'Undeclared' is sometimes called "General Studies".


People of the SFU Choir have done renditions to this xkcd song. See SFU Choir - Every Major's Terrible. The transcription is also shown at the scenes, so it is more easy to understand the text.


Every Major's Terrible
to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan's
Modern Major-General Song
(Which you may know from Tom Lehrer's Elements. If not, just hum Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.)

Philosophy's just math sans rigor, sense, and practicality
and Math's just physics unconstrained by precepts of reality.
A Business Major's just a thing you get so you can graduate
and Chemistry's for stamp collectors high on methylacetate.
Why anyone who wants a job would study Lit's a mystery
unless their only other choice were something like Art History.
A BA in communications guarantees that you'll achieve
a little less than if you'd learned to underwater basket-weave
I'd rather eat a Fowler's toad than major in Biology, RIBBIT (a frog)
and Social Psych is worse than either Psych or Sociology.
The thought of picking any one of these is too unbearable.
Just put me down as "Undecided" - Every Major's Terrible.

Now, if you can't prognosticate, that's ok in Seismology,
but if your hindsight's weak as well, you'd best stick to Theology.
CS will make each day a quest to find a missing close-paren.
Virology will guarantee you'll never get a hug again.
I.T. prepares you for a life of fighting with PCs nonstop.
As Pratchett said, "Geography's just physics slowed with trees on top."
though physics seems to promise you a Richard Feynman-like career,
the wiki page for "Physics Major" redirects to "Engineer."
They say to study history or find yourself repeating it,
but all that it prepares you for is forty years of teaching it.
I recognize my four-year plan's at this point not repairable,
but put me down as "Undecided" - Every Major's Terrible.

Astronomers all cringe when they hear "Supermoon" or "Zodiac".
Agronomy's a no-go; I'm a huge agorophobiac.
I'm too ophiophobic to consider Herpetology,
and I can't stomach any part of Gastroenterology.
While Pre-Med gives you twitchy-eyed obsession with your GPA,
a poetry degree bespeaks bewildering naivete.
TV's behind the rush into Forensic Criminology
(or so claims Meta-academic Epidemiology).
By dubbing Econ "Dismal science" adherents exaggerate;
the "Dismal"'s fine - it's "science" where they patently prevaricate.
In terms of choices, I'd say only Sophie's was comparable.
Just put me down as "Undecided" - Every Major's Terrible!

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I think Iambic Octameter has a stressed-unstressed pattern, not the other way around as this explanation says. 02:56, 10 April 2017 (UTC)

No, the explanation is correct, I misread the Wikipedia article. 13:41, 16 April 2017 (UTC)

Panel 1's cueball is in the same pose as Rodin's "The Thinker"

Panel 4 background is the periodic table of elements.

Panel 5, Fowler's Toad emits a noxious secretion that irritates skin and mucous membranes (it was previously thought to cause warts)

Panel 6, Psychology = a serial killer with a chainsaw, Sociology = hobo; Social Psych = hobo serial killer with chainsaw.

Panel 15, LISP, Scheme, and other computer languages with an excess of parentheses.

Panel 16, biohazard symbol

Panel 19, bongos were played by Richard Feynman

Panel 27, fear of snakes, study of reptiles

Panel 28, a picture of a stomach, pun on "stomach" being slang for "tolerate"

Panel 30, words in all lowercase like e.e.cummings

-- 22:04, 7 December 2012‎

Hobo serial killer with chainsaw? Social psych sounds awesome! 22:42, 22 October 2013 (UTC)

In panel 22 (History), what's the theme connecting the years 1935, 1969, and 1991? Wwoods (talk) 15:40, 21 May 2013 (UTC)

1935 is certainly related to some event that lead to the WWII (a quick look at the Wikipedia page for 1935 show that was the year Hitler rearmed Germany), which paved the way to the Cold War. 1969 was Apollo 11, a high moment of the Cold War, as the USA essentially won the race to the Moon. And 1991 was the year that the USSR dissolved, officially ending the Cold War. Sir labreck (talk) 18:37, 11 August 2015 (UTC)
1935, Harlem race riot; 1969, race riot in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; 1991, Rodney King race riots... 2014-2016??? 03:33, 13 December 2015 (UTC)

This explanation is very small for that big comic. I am starting to add the transcript and after that I will do more investigations to that opera. This should be the key to explain all the panels.--Dgbrt (talk) 19:13, 21 May 2013 (UTC)

The answer won't lie in the song, trust me. Pirates of Penzance is probably my favorite comic opera out there. Plus Randall gives that the lie in saying you can use the tune from the elements song (a well-known parody) or even Marry Poppins (similar tune, but not exactly the same). I think each panel is just a reference to the words, I don't think that Randall is actually involving The Pirates of Penzance in any way other than the tune. 20:53, 9 December 2013 (UTC)

Feynman was also known for being a ladies' man, so the two girls in panel 19 are significant IMHO. -- 13:51, 25 December 2013 (UTC)

Needs explanation what does it mean to choose a major, and what major is in this context. Note every reader is from U.S.A.; different countries have different higher education systems. --JakubNarebski (talk) 10:56, 9 January 2014 (UTC)

True that. 'Graduation' in Brazil means 'Undergraduation' in the US. 03:51, 1 February 2014 (UTC)

"Math's just physics unconstrained by precepts of reality" - that isn't a binary tree, its a bifurcation diagram from chaos theory. And, sorry, it has nothing to do with the Banach–Tarski paradox - that's just mindless name-dropping. Davidbak (talk) 20:54, 10 February 2014 (UTC)

Are you sure it is not just an illustration of Banach-Tarski, arguably the most famous example where mathematical reality and (physical) intuition diverge? Why would the verse be illustrated by a bifurcation diagram (which I think, and I might be a bit ignorant here, is a concept pretty much only found in the "applied side" of mathematics, which is constrained by precepts of reality)? And even if it were a bifurcation diagram, why would the mass of the balls change? (again, I am perhaps showcasing my ignorance; if so, please be gentle) Finally, i would deem the bifurcation explanation a bit too obscure to be the real deal - a panel which is only understood by somewhat specialized mathematicians seems strange to me, especially given that all other frames contain understandable references. 13:38, 9 October 2015 (UTC)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRexBMPeRToHalfhat (talk) 18:59, 3 April 2014 (UTC)

Panel 30: possibly iambic septameter141.101.104.154

--- I think that the reason for not getting hugs in panel 16 is more to do with the fact that as a virus researcher you would be aware of how easy it is to get a virus/disease and so you would keep away from people and be worried about hugs because of that. (Sorry if I've done something wrong this is my first comment!) Yxquillio (talk) 08:24, 3 January 2016 (UTC)

Another song I guess could provide a good match is "Can You Stop the Calvary?" by Jona Lewie (or "Where's the Modding API" if you're a YOGSCAST fan like me. :)) --JayRulesXKCD (talk) 11:50, 20 September 2016 (UTC)

"End of the first verse where Cueball tells his academic advisor that he is undecided as every major's terrible. He even throws away his study guide." Are you sure it's not a course catalog? 10:33, 19 June 2017 (UTC)