A co-worker brought Thing Explainer to work the other day, and a different co-worker and I spent some time poring over it. It is essentially an entire book of diagrams like this, using only the 1000 most commonly-used words in English.

We all work in a data center (or, as the book calls it, a "computer building"), so we have the benefit of higher education and of actually being familiar with the technical terms that don't make the top-1000 cut. We observed that the thousand-word constraint lent itself well to some diagrams, but in other cases, it turned the diagram into a sort of page of riddles.

The periodic table, in particular, became a sort of memory game, in which we drew on our imperfect memories of which element goes where to match the sometimes-imaginative descriptions with their proper names. The whole point of jargon, of course, is to reduce a ten-word description into a one-word name, so the success of each caption hinges on how eloquently or awkwardly the constrained description fits the single word it is replacing. Some jargon is recursive--the words it replaces are themselves technical or at least not everyday terms--so the language has to do a few backflips.

"The part of air you need to breathe" and "that kind of air that makes your voice funny" are oxygen and helium, of course...but would this "simple" language help me if I had no prior scientific knowledge of the composition of Earth's atmosphere, or of the autotuning properties of helium? Would it just become a tantalizing hint that yes, these things have structure beyond the scope of this rocket? With my mind now written as it is, with knowledge of these things, I can no longer find out.

The experience struck me as being similar to reading the kennings in old Anglo-Saxon poetry, in which the ocean might be called the "whale-road" or a king a "ring-giver". Wikipedia gives such lovely examples as calling fire a "bane of wood" or "sun of the houses", or a battle a "spear-crash". When poetry like Beowulf is translated into modern English, these kennings are not always preserved; when they are, they are a little puzzle for the reader, a chance for the educated to put the words together and say, "Aha! He means this thing!" Of course, that was how they were intended in the first place; our translators gloss them over so as not to have them on every other line.

I once read that there was some science fiction novel that included a description of the structure of an atom, without using any words that were derived from Latin. I forget what book this was, or who wrote it, but the relevant passage was given. Since Latin provides a lot of our science words--and even a lot of our common words, via French--the effect was not unlike that of Thing Explainer. English does have a freakishly large vocabulary, even for "common" words, thanks to that infusion of French, and to English speakers' love of adopting words from the places we explore. English is the Borg of languages. Not all languages do this so readily. Some, like German and Chinese, smash old words together into single long words or phrases when they need a new "technical term"--so perhaps, for readers of those languages, any technical diagram looks like Thing Explainer.

How would Beowulf's authors have described the Apollo missions?

Listen! The sky-sailors in days gone by
Filled their ship with the breath of men and of the depths of earth,
Made its oars of light that dances on wood.
And once they had set forth, high away from home,
They were adrift, swept by lonely sky-currents
To Mani's beacon, the light upon that distant shore...

I know how a "computer room" works, but I'm glad something inspired me to consider questions like this.

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