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Explaining complex things in simple words

NS 3049: XKCD comic creator: Original Article   25 November 2015


Randall Munroe is a former NASA roboticist and creator of the cult webcomic XKCD. His 2014 book What If? offered serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions. His new book is Thing Explainer: Complicated stuff in simple words Interview Is it possible to explain things like nuclear power stations and microwaves without using jargon? Randall Munroe wanted to find out

How did you get the idea of explaining complex things using only the 1000 most common words?

The idea actually grew out of an XKCD comic I did. I was playing a computer game in which you have to design rockets and successfully launch them. My spaceships would always blow up, so every launch I needed to find a new name. I quickly got tired of giving them cool, majestic names like The Falcon and I started giving them stupid names like Flying Space Boat. The dumbest thing I could come up with was Up Goer. Then I started thinking, "Hey, what if I did a whole diagram where I labelled everything using really dumb words?"

How did you decide on the 1000 words to use?

I ended up going down a bit of a rabbit hole because there are so many different ways to define the most common words. You get wildly different answers if you draw on fiction versus non-fiction or speech versus text or email versus books. And you must have rules about how you combine words. So, "run" and "ran" probably count as the same word. But what about "runner"?

What methods did you use to create your list?

I looked at a few different lists and some of the words really didn't fit with my idea of a simple word. If you do a list based on newspapers, there are lots of words for institutions and words like "vote" and "education" that are not that common in other parts of our lives. So I spent several months going back over a bunch of different lists and generating some of my own based on the Google Books corpus and even my own email inbox. Then I combined the lists and where they disagreed I just let my sense of consistency be the tie-breaker. I really spent more time than I think I needed trying to find the best list of simple words.

How straightforward was it once the word list was fixed?

I could have made it easier for myself. There are a few words I was disappointed didn't make the cut. The biggest omission was a synonym for "rope" or "string". I didn't have "pipe", "tube", "thread" or "cable" on my list so when I was describing things like the ship USS Constitution - which has a lot of rope - the only word I had was "line". This fits in some contexts, but has so many other meanings that it was hard to work with. I was like, "Come on, people, we need to use the word 'rope' more often and this will be a lot easier."

With their limited set of words, the definitions in your new book Thing Explainer get to the real essence of things - like calling a lock a shape checker. Was that intentional?

Partly. My editors asked why I couldn't just call a lock a bad person stopper. But that isn't what they do. They're unusual pieces of technology because they offload decision-making to something mechanical. We think about locks as almost magical: only the right people can open them. But that's not correct. Only people who have a piece of metal with a certain shape can open it.

So the limited vocabulary changed how you wrote?

As I wrote, I had tools that would warn me if I used a word that was not on the list, like a spell-checker. But much of our writing and speech is automatic and even on the last day of writing I used the word "astronaut" without thinking and only noticed when the spell-checker thing kicked in. Having the rules was nice because every sentence or two it would just poke me in the side and say, wait, can you think of another way to say that? The constraint forces you to be more creative.

Did writing this book make other writing seem overly complex?

It definitely made me notice more when I came across complicated words. I read a paper recently about surveying a moon from an orbiter and it said they detected a number of lacustrine depressions. I looked it up and it means lake-like. So what they mean is, we've discovered some lakes. Of course, there's some value in not using familiar terms because you want people to realise they are not exactly lakes. But at the same time, fluid-filled lacustrine depressions is the most complicated way to say "lake" I can imagine.

Is this an issue with how science is presented?

The bigger problem isn't so much the jargon itself, but the fear behind the jargon, the imposter syndrome. I have that feeling all the time. Like anyone, I have that desperate fear of sounding dumb and I think that makes it harder to communicate than it needs to be. It can make people use jargon.

"I did a comic about a Linux command that became the most popular thing I'd done"

Explanation seems to be at the heart of your work, including your XKCD comics...

I'm a chronic explainer at heart. I try to keep from going overboard on that, especially in everyday conversation. But you can't write a daily comic without encouraging a desire to take things from your head and push them at other people.

You used to be a roboticist. How did you end up creating webcomics full-time?

I grew up reading Calvin & Hobbes, which mixed childlike games with some dark, brooding ideas about the world. Charles Schulz's Peanuts did that too. I thought if I'm going to do comics, they need to talk about life in that way. Then I did a comic about a Linux command and it became the most popular thing I had ever done up to that point. It turns out you can talk about specific interests and there are lots of people who feel the same way about them. If it's interesting to me, there's probably someone else out there who's interested too.

By Douglas Heaven
Submitted by Frank Forman