990: Plastic Bags

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Collaborative editing can quickly become a textual rap battle fought with increasingly convoluted invocations of U+202a to U+202e
Title text: Collaborative editing can quickly become a textual rap battle fought with increasingly convoluted invocations of U+202a to U+202e


U+202e is a unicode control character that changes all subsequent text to right-to-left (RTL, as the title references). In the comic, Black Hat tires of Cueball's complaining and inserts a U+202e character in the middle of Cueball's speech, turning his complaints into gibberish - sentences that must be read from right-to-left.

The title of the comic builds on this theme, with the title of the webpage it is hosted on being LTR in some browsers (see trivia), the reverse of the comic name.

What Cueball actually tries to say after Black Hats change is:

— They didn't even...
...What the hell?
How did you...

When multiple writers work on the same text, arguments can often arise with some writers resorting to vandalizing the works of other writers. The title text takes this up a level, suggesting the use of U+202e and other direction control characters in editor wars to disrupt other people's work. For reference for future wars U+202c returns text back to its normal direction.


[Cueball is standing behind Black Hat who is sitting down with a laptop on his lap.]
Cueball: And that's not even the worst part! The worst part is that—
Black Hat types a command on the PC: U+202e
Cueball: ‮—They didn't even...
Cueball: ‮...What the hell?
Cueball: ‮How did you...
Cueball: ‮...Asshole.


  • In the version originally published there was a typo in the reverse text ("ETH" instead of "EHT" for "THE"). This mistake was corrected within a couple of hours.
  • The title given in the web browser, (for instance seen on the icon for the browser bar at the bottom of the screen), for the comic on the xkcd website actually has a U+202e character preceding it;
    • The page title is "xkcd: [U+202e]LTR", which for instance causes Firefox to write the page title as "xkcd: xoferiF allizoM - RTL" as the window title. So xkcd and the comics title is correct (The LTR turns to RTL). But the browsers name is reversed.
    • This may only affect some browsers but it also occurs in Internet Explorer,Google Chrome, Chromium and Opera.
  • In some browsers (for instance Internet Explorer), this page's title damages the appearance of all older entries in the archive page on xkcd.
    • Here is a picture example for people without access to explorer: Reverse archive.
  • This is the second comic in a row with Cueball and Black Hat discussing. Both with Black Hat with his back turned to Cueball.
    • In the previous comic Black Hat broke a mirror, and in this comic he then reverses Cueballs speak
    • Not exactly a mirroring of his speak, but still related.
    • In the broken archive mentioned above, 1136: Broken Mirror is the first (or last) entry to be broken!

Unicode Control Characters

Unicode number Name Meaning
U+202a LEFT-TO-RIGHT EMBEDDING The following text will be left-to-right. This will not change directionality of characters, so for example Arabic letters will stay right-to-left. This character alone does nothing in an English text, since the text direction is left-to-right by default.
U+202b RIGHT-TO-LEFT EMBEDDING The following text will be right-to-left. This will not change directionality of characters, so Latin letters will stay left-to-right. Full stops, which don't have a directionality on their own, will be left of the sentence. Use this character for some little misplacings that cause big confusion.
U+202c POP DIRECTIONAL FORMATTING The following text is formatted like the text before the last U+202a, U+202b, U+202d or U+202e character.
U+202d LEFT-TO-RIGHT OVERRIDE The following text will be left-to-right. Additionally, the directionality of characters is changed to left-to-right. Used alone in an English text, this will only affect characters that are right-to-left by default, like Arabic letters.
U+202e RIGHT-TO-LEFT OVERRIDE The following text will be right-to-left. Additionally, the directionality of characters is changed to right-to-left. Use this character to completely screw up an English text.

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This time the lesson I learned came mostly from alt-text. The high we can experience from helping the world can last for days indeed, way better and healthier then drugs, want to try it? - e-inspired 15:45, 27 February 2013 (UTC)

You make it sound like it's an either/or choice. 08:02, 26 April 2013 (UTC)

As a former service cashier/bag filler I can confirm that there is a counterpoint, customers with reusable bags who will absolutely refuse to use any plastic bags whatsoever, no matter how ridiculously overful their bags become, and no matter how much of a bad idea it might be ("Yes, sure, lets put your hot chicken in with the ice cream, along with the crusty laundry powder box on top of the soft fruit! I can't see how this could possibly go wrong!").Pennpenn (talk) 04:11, 14 February 2014 (UTC)

Use two reusable bags :D Beanie (talk) 12:05, 12 May 2021 (UTC)

The comic, and to even greater degree its explanation, is really confusing for a non-American like myself. Some "stupid" questions about shopping groceries in the U.S.:

  • Don't customers bag their own groceries?
  • Are plastic bags for free (for the customer)?
  • In that case, what is the incentive for the practice in the comic?
  • Do you get a rebate if you bring your own bag(s) instead?
  • If so, why don't simply charge for the bags provided by the store?

To put this in perspective: In Sweden, and I think most of the EU, plastic bags are the single most profitable commodity in a store. They sell for around 25 cents and are bought by the store for maybe 5 cents so the margin would be around 400%. The customer gets no help packing them (all cash desks have two compartments so you pack while the next customer's items fill the other compartment). Thus, the salesman wants to sell bags and often asks "Do you need a bag?" (but is polite enough not to try to sell more bags than necessary). The customer, on the other hand, wants to fill the bags maximally, and often brings his own bags.

Could someone with global insights on packing customs improve the explanation, to make it work internationally? Mumiemonstret (talk) 15:48, 13 June 2014 (UTC)

Two incentives working here. The first is that the cashier (or bagger, or in some places the customer) is bagging items in the order they're scanned, and often has neither space nor time for setting things aside and coming back to them. Combine that with things that shouldn't be bagged together, and you get people changing bags when the type of product coming down the line changes, even if there's plenty of room left. The other is that the bags are flimsy, so people tend to err on the side of caution when judging how much weight they can hold. (Would I rather take an extra bag, or risk having to chase cans around the parking lot when the bottom falls out? Or, as a cashier, do I want to risk getting yelled at by the customer who had that happen?) 05:10, 6 September 2015 (UTC)
In most stores in the US, the cashier bags your goods. A handful of grocery stores have the customers bag their own items. Bags are free for the customer. Some stores will give a small refund if you bring in reusable bags. It's not really a "practice" in the sense of a formalized policy to use as many bags as possible. But some cashiers do seem to have a tendency to use excess bags. I think it's because it's often easier to get another bag than to rearrange items to fit more into the bag, plus the desire to avoid overloading them. So, it's more laziness than a formal practice CVictoria (talk) 18:09, 19 July 2014 (UTC)

I addressed the complaint about the 5 cent bags and explained the title text. Is it good now? 05:36, 12 August 2014 (UTC)

I've done my best to completely overhaul the explanation, which a particular eye towards explaining our "peculiar institution" of providing plastic bags (and baggers) in the U.S. If something doesn't seem to make sense or merits additional explanation, please let me know. Orazor (talk) 11:00, 12 August 2014 (UTC)

In some places in Argentina (it varies from state to state) the disposable plastic bags where banned completely, they sell (relatively cheap, like 3 pesos or so) a reusable plastic bag, wich is also oxi-bio-degradable so if it exposed to sun+water+air will degrade with time. But normally you try to use your own bags, or sometimes, carton boxes from the store itself. 18:30, 13 December 2016 (UTC)

Continuation: 5 double-bags, placed into a big double-bag. 10:14, 24 January 2018 (UTC)