Using the smallest words for the biggest concepts

‘Thing Explainer’ describes the world using the simplest terms

thing explainer

Randall Munroe’s new book uses only to 1,000 most common words in English to take on everything from a padlock to the International Space Station.

Randall Munroe/xkcd. (CC BY-NC 2.5)

Take a moment and describe a microwave. What does it do? How does it work?

Now here’s the catch. You can’t use the word “microwave.” You also can’t use “turntable,” “electricity” or “button.” Sound like a tough assignment?

Randall Munroe, who writes the popular comic xkcd, decided to take this challenge. He’s written a book called Thing Explainer: Complicated stuff in simple words. The book covers topics ranging from the International Space Station to oil and coal. And it describes every one of them using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language. The book shows that you don’t always need big words to tackle big concepts. But it also shows that sometimes, they sure can help.

Randall Munroe’s new book uses only to 1,000 most common words in English to take on everything from a padlock to the International Space Station. Randall Munroe/xkcd. (CC BY-NC 2.5)
The idea began as something called the “Up-Goer Five” challenge. Munroe tried to describe the Saturn V — the rocket that took people to the moon — using just the 1,000 (or “ten hundred”) most commonly used words. The access hatch for the astronauts became simply the “door.” The moon lander was the “part that flies down to the other world with two people inside.” And the Saturn V itself became the “ Up Goer Five .”

Munroe’s comic describing the rocket became an Internet hit. Then, Theo Sanderson created a website that helps anyone to similarly transform language. Sanderson is a geneticist at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England. A geneticist studies the code that provides instructions to make living things. But on the side, he decided to make up a site called “The Up-Goer Five Text Editor,” which he named after Munroe’s cartoon. It helps you to describe anything using the 1,000 most-common words in the English language. Use a word that isn’t common enough (for example, the word “common”), and the website underlines it in red. You then know you have to find another word. 

Now, after the success of the Up-Goer Five comic and related website, Munroe has created an entire book describing complicated objects in the most common terms. The large pages combine cartoon drawings of objects, such as cells and a nuclear power plant, with simple-worded descriptions of all the parts.  

The book may use smaller, easier words, but it sure uses a lot of them. Each page is dense with line drawings and text. Tiny stick figures cavort through the images, fencing with Mars rovers and swimming in the dishwasher.

Thing Explainer started out as a gimmick, and in some ways it still is one. But it is also a way to introduce people to things they may never have thought of before. The book is packed full of things to learn. I admit that I didn’t know exactly how a washing machine worked, or about all the different rooms in the International Space Station. With the combination of the drawings and text, I gained a much better idea of how these things work.

For some of the items and concepts, the simple words help. It turns out you don’t need big scientific terms to know how a nuclear reactor — a large machine that takes elements that shed energy and uses them to generate power — really works.

For other items, the simple words actually make it harder to figure out what they are. The U.S.S. Constitution becomes the U.S.S. Laws of the Land. It’s cute to see the name in the most common words. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you already know that it’s a famous ship in the U.S. Navy. It saw action during the War of 1812 and now sits in Boston Harbor in Massachusetts, where tourists and school groups can see it. Similarly, it took me a good minute to figure out that “flashing sky lights” meant lightning. And if I didn’t know how a padlock worked already, I never would have figured out the “shape checker.”

Thing Explainer could be a fun gift for the science-minded. But it isn’t for everyone. The book requires focus and a willingness to puzzle out what, exactly, some of the simple words are trying to tell you. For those with the necessary curiosity, though, the book might make you wonder, and then send you out to look for yourself.

And it might help you realize that sometimes, it’s easier to say “we call this a microwave.”

“Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and is available in hardcover from for $14.97 and in e-book format for $12.99.

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

genetic  Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

International Space Station An artificial satellite that orbits Earth. Run by the United States and Russia, this station provides a research laboratory from which scientists can conduct experiments in biology, physics and astronomy — and make observations of Earth.

nuclear power Energy derived from processes that produce heat by splitting apart the nuclei of atoms (fission) or forcing atomic nuclei to merge (fusion). A nuclear power plant uses that heat to drive turbines that create electricity.

nuclear reactor  A large machine in which radioactive fuel undergoes a steady chain of fission reactions, which generate heat.

radioactive  An adjective that describes unstable elements, such as certain forms (isotopes) of uranium and plutonium. Such elements are said to be unstable because their nucleus sheds energy that is carried away by photons and/or and often one or more subatomic particles. This emission of energy is by a process known as radioactive decay.

Saturn   The sixth planet out from the sun in our solar system. One of the four gas giants, this planet takes 10.7 hours to rotate (completing a day) and 29 Earth years to complete one orbit of the sun. It has at least 53 known moons and 9 more candidates awaiting confirmation. But what most distinguishes this planet is the broad and flat plane of seven rings that orbit it.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.