503: Terminology

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Also, is it just me, or do Japan and New Zealand look suspiciously similar?  Has anyone seen them at a party together?
Title text: Also, is it just me, or do Japan and New Zealand look suspiciously similar? Has anyone seen them at a party together?


This comic shows a map of the world. The X in the center, labeled "ME," indicates Randall's approximate location in the U.S., and two arrows point west and east from it. The map uses a format, popular in America, that places the American continents centrally, therefore splitting Asia. The comic then shows Europe labeled "The West" as it is commonly referred to, despite being located to the east of Randall, and Asia similarly labeled "The East", despite being west of Randall. Randall is therefore annoyed with the common terms "the West" and "the East" referring to locations east and west of him respectively.

"The East" and "the West" were defined in geographical terms from the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia. They were later expanded or (mis-)appropriated to include references to cultural, racial, political, and trade connections. Another east-west division comes from zero longitude (the prime meridian): the Western Hemisphere and Eastern Hemisphere are defined in reference to it, and world maps are often centered on it. The fact that the prime meridian runs precisely though the Greenwich Observatory, in London, is an artifact of the British Empire's dominance —and British exploration of the world— in the 1700s and 1800s. In particular, British astronomical tables (made by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London) were widely used to determine longitude all over the world. The need for establishing a precise zero-longitude is one of the two technological necessities to make a sextant work as a tool to calculate accurate position for map making.

In short, "the East" and "the West" as terms in common usage refer to map coordinates and not to positions relative to where you are (The interpretation presented in the comic). An America-centered map does not redefine "the East" or "the West" anymore than an Australian up-side-down reversed map redefines "the North" or "the South".

The convention of orienting maps with north at the top and west at the left was started by the Greek geographer Ptolemy. In his work Geography, he introduced the first coordinate system with latitude and longitude. Randall shows some other possible map orientations in 977: Map Projections.

The title text comments on the similarity in shape of New Zealand and Japan, and he suggests that one may in fact be the other in disguise, much like Clark Kent and Superman, as well as similar superhero alter ego pairs. The similarities between New Zealand and Japan are partly explained by the fact that both formed as volcanic island chains.


[Map of the world with North America centered. An "x" is placed near the east coast. Asia is labeled "The East" and Europe "The West."]
"The East" <- West x (me) East -> "The West"
[Caption below the frame:]
This always bugged me.

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Well, sitting in Europe, the East is in fact east and the West is in fact west of me. It's just a term made from an European point of view and has settled over time. The main problem is that east and west should be used as relative directions but are used absolute. (Contrary to north and south which can also be used absolute). -- 12:18, 30 April 2013 (UTC)

I'm still accustomed to the use of the Pacific Ocean as the geographical split, centralising the Atlantic Ocean. However, since the UTC boundary sits east of the Atlantic, perhaps the East and West hemispheres should be reversed to match.
Do we have enough dumptrucks to handle this formidable task? Thokling (talk) 08:35, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
So what? The International Date Line sits within the Pacific. Also, for the reasons mentioned above (east and west being relative), I would refrain from using the terms eastern and western hemisphere. --SlashMe (talk) 14:17, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
It's not only point of VIEW. Our civilization is based in Europe. Europeans first discovered and then conquered rest of world (doesn't matter if the people already living there wanted to be discovered or not). "West" is what was discovered when sailing to west from Europe, "east" is what was discovered when sailing to east. Americans (especially citizens of USA) sometimes forget they are (mostly) NOT native of America, but immigrants from Europe.
Also, in Europe itself, the division between "east" and "west" was set at end of world war II, at Potsdam Conference, and I'm sure noone cared for geography there. -- Hkmaly (talk) 12:13, 13 November 2013 (UTC)
Actually, I think that by now most people in America are natives. It has been several generations since the discovery of the Americas by the Europeans, so even though they are descendants of Europeans most current inhabitants of the Americas were born there in the Americas. Being born there is what makes you native to it, otherwise there would be no native Americans at all, since the inhabitants of the Americas can be roughly divided into, in reverse chronological order of inhabitance, descendants of Africans, Europeans and Asians (that is, descendants of Asians were the first to inhabit America). Tharkon (talk) 02:35, 13 February 2014 (UTC)
Actually, both Europeans and Asians originally came from Africa. :P 19:38, 4 March 2020 (UTC)
I mean, the whole comic is based around about how it doesn't make sense if you live in America. Beanie (talk) 09:53, 30 March 2021 (UTC)
Where is "X"

The map seems to be using the either the Gall stereographic projection or the Mercator projection, which is also used by Google Maps. However, the drawing does not match up with the standard projection used by Google Maps -- Better people may be able to find a projection which more closely align with the drawing.

This map.

Moved from explain page. --Dgbrt (talk) 21:39, 12 December 2013 (UTC)

Well, Randall did say in his What If? book that he did grow up in Virginia (the "flyover state" section of the book), so maybe he still lived around that point in 2008. And according to the X, my fact is correct. From what I can see. --JayRulesXKCD (talk) 16:33, 14 September 2016 (UTC)

I live in New Zealand and have been to japan so I can confirm that they are indeed different countries (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

How can you be sure that New Zealand did not just move very fast while you were on plane? 11:05, 6 May 2017 (UTC)

Well, as a European this has bothered me as well. After all, the American East coast is to the West of us... while the West coast is far closer to China than to Europe (i.e. far closer to the East than to the West). I tend to confuse the two a lot... As a compromise, I suggest calling all three coasts the East/West coast to resolve any and all confusion and ambiguity. -- 10:36, 18 April 2018 (UTC)

To further confuse things, I will also point out that the easternmost AND westernmost points of the US are both in Alaska: WorldAtlas L-Space Traveler (talk) 01:48, 2 September 2022 (UTC)

Randall comments on how New Zealand and Japan look similar, and the superhero comparison made is... Spiderman? Spiderman wears a costume that covers his entire body. Superman would be far more fitting. Changing this.
-Sensorfire (talk) 02:25, 15 August 2018 (UTC)