Thing Explainer

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The original cover of the book
The new cover of the book

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words is a book by Randall Munroe which explains things in the style of Up Goer Five (also included in the book), using only blueprint like drawings and a vocabulary of the 1,000 (or ten hundred) most common words in the English language. Randall found his own method to determine which words would go on his list, a list that is revealed in the book. (It can also be found here.)

The book explores, among other things, computer buildings (datacenters), the flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates), the things you use to steer a plane (airliner cockpit controls), and the little bags of water you're made of (cells). See a summary below and also the entire index from the book listing all the 45 different explanations.

Thing Explainer is Randall's second published book, not including xkcd comic books, which he announced on May 13th, 2015 in the blag following the amazing success of his what if? book based on the what if? blog.

The book is a collection of diagrams and line drawings similar in style to the Up Goer Five comic, which can also be purchased as a poster. It was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on November 24th and is available from among others Amazon to which a link has been posted on xkcd for a long time.

When the book was released, Randall collaborated with Minute Physics to publish a "commercial" version of the Upgoer comic.

Release day[edit]

On the day of the book's release (even though it was a Tuesday) Randall also released the comic 1608: Hoverboard, which was a direct celebration of the book's release (it says so in the comic). But it was far from being a small or normal comic! It was the first "real" game comic released on xkcd (albeit not the first interactive comic). In the style of 1110: Click and Drag it was possible to move around in a very much larger picture than what was shown in the frame. But this is not done by clicking and dragging though, instead the user controls Cueball on a hoverboard (hence the title of the comic) by using the arrow keys, assuming that the user is on a desktop computer or a laptop. If they are on a mobile device such as a smartphone, Cueball is controlled by tilting the device.

There are many themes and references throughout the game, but the two main themes are Star Wars (the largest part to the right part) and The Lord of the Rings to the left. Several references goes back to the book from this comic. These are listed in the explanation for the hoverboard comic.

On the release day Randall also released a simple writer that would only accept the thousand words listed at the back of the book under The ten hundred words people use the most. In this way others can try to create simple explanations themselves.


Have you ever tried to learn more about some incredible thing, only to be frustrated by incomprehensible jargon? Randall Munroe is here to help. In Thing Explainer, he uses line drawings and only the thousand (or, rather, “ten hundred”) most common words to provide simple explanations for some of the most interesting stuff there is, including:

  • food-heating radio boxes (microwaves)
  • tall roads (bridges)
  • computer buildings (datacenters)
  • the shared space house (the International Space Station)
  • the other worlds around the sun (the solar system)
  • the big flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates)
  • the pieces everything is made of (the periodic table)
  • planes with turning wings (helicopters)
  • boxes that make clothes smell better (washers and dryers)
  • the bags of stuff inside you (cells)

How do these things work? Where do they come from? What would life be like without them? And what would happen if we opened them up, heated them up, cooled them down, pointed them in a different direction, or pressed this button? In Thing Explainer, Munroe gives us the answers to these questions and so many more. Funny, interesting, and always understandable, this book is for anyone—age 5 to 105—who has ever wondered how things work, and why.

Things in this book by page (Contents)[edit]

Below is the complete index of the book called Things in this book by page. First is the simple title listed. Then follows the translation of this to normal language in brackets, with a wiki link to the most relevant page, based on the books material rather than the actual title. After "…" follows the page number for the start of that title as listed in the book:

There are 45 entries, but with the introduction, the list of used words and the acknowledgments taking up three, the total ends up at 48 explanations.

The ten hundred words people use the most[edit]

  • Since thousand is not among the 1000 most common words in the English language, he has to write it as ten hundred.
    • Also common is also not a common word (ironically enough).
  • It is possible to check if a word is allowed by using his simple writer.
    • The list of allowed words can be found here.
  • He does not use numbers like 1, 5 or 1000 in the book. He writes them out with words. So he could not have written 1000 words...
    • Not even in the How to count things explanation.
    • Interestingly enough neither zero or nine is in the list
      • But the other numbers from one to ten can be used as well as twenty, thirty and hundred. No other numbers work.
      • Zero is thus written none and nine like the one after eight.
    • In the simple writer you can write numbers without getting an error.
      • But except in the index (called the Things in this book by page) and on the page just before this, with the publication details, numbers are only used for page numbers at the bottom of the page, which is also the only numbers referenced to in the index.
  • The list has been made by Randall himself from extensive searches of the use of words in different types of sources.
    • Especially fiction texts was used, but he also searched through the text messages he had received from people as another source.
    • He writes directly: This is my list of the ten hundred words people use the most.
  • He only included one version of a word in the list. But all the different forms/endings of those words are allowed, but they are not written in the list and thus also not counted towards the 1000 allowed words.
    • Thus many more different words than 1000 can be used, but only words with 1000 different meanings are used!
    • He mentions as an example the word talk, which is on the list, and thus also talking and talked would be allowed.
      • He also allows words that do not exist if they sound funny enough like talker.
      • This is similar to goer like in 1133: Up Goer Five or Sky toucher from the last explanation in the book.
    • Another example is the word be which is in the list.
      • This then allows for instance Am, are and is to be used.
      • Those words are thus not in the list.
      • See example below regarding words used in an xkcd comic featured in the book.
  • Some common swear words have been left out even though they would be in most "real" list with the top 1000 common words
    • For instance fuck would most likely have made the cut and maybe also shit, and probably also some less harsh swear words.
    • As he writes in the notes at the bottom of the last page with the list of words:
      • I didn't want to use those words anyway.
  • In the section Helpers he specifically notes that he wants to thank people, even though their names are not in the list.
    • So he writes them out anyway!

References to comics[edit]

  • These obvious references have already been mentioned above:
    • 1133: Up Goer Five. But apart from the entire comic being in the book there are other references to the comic:
      • The tip of the Saturn V rocket can be seen at the top of Sky Toucher
      • The moon lander (and two astronauts) can been seen on the Moon in Worlds Around the Sun.
      • In the explanation for The pieces everything is made of hydrogen is similarly "named" by showing a picture of the burning Hindenburg and using the same quote as in the comic, "Oh, the humanity", which becomes "Oh the Humans!" in the book vs. "Oh, the [Humans]!" in the comic.
    • 1608: Hoverboard. (See this extensive list of connections).
  • But there are also other comics that are directly or indirectly references in the book.
    • 1388: Subduction License is one of the most obvious examples is this comic which is directly featured in the book:
      • It is included as part of the explanation of the Big flat rocks we live on.
      • But it is only the three last panels after the first panel which is displayed.
      • The reason the first panel is not included is of course the words Subduction License which would not be allowed in the book.
      • The normal words in the two middle panels are all found in the list at the back of the book. That is some form of the words are.
        • Here is what is written in these panels and below this a "translation" to the version of these words that can be found on the list (see above for an explanation on this):
        • What are you doing? Stop it! Stop it!
        • What be you do? Stop it! Stop it!
        • All versions of these words would be allowed in the book. But the last word, Augh is of course not on the list, mainly because it is not a real word but just a sound word for an exclamation. But it is left in for the sake of the comic.
    • 526: Converting to Metric.
      • It is just a more funny version of How to count things where only the volume segment has been left out.
      • The only item going again in both is the weight of a cat, although this is listed as 4 kg in the comic and 5 kg in the book...
    • 1314: Photos.
      • There is a small drawing that is just a different version of the idea behind the comic (see more explanation on the comics explanation).
    • 1110: Click and Drag.
      • A very direct reference is found in Stuff you touch to fly a sky boat where Cueball with his balloon can be seen floating just outside the cockpit.
      • But there are other less indirect references like the radio controlled helicopter chase across several longer and longer bridges in Tall roads where Megan in the end catches it with a fishing rod. In Click and Drag Beret Guy is chasing an RC helicopter with a butterfly net. And butterfly nets are also used in the book for catching other strange tings, see more below.
    • 1655: Doomsday Clock as well as 1626: Judgment Day.
      • Both came out shortly after the book, both concerns the weapons of mass destruction humanity has created.
      • This is referenced both directly in Machine for burning cities and are also mentioned in Boat that goes under the sea.
    • 1619: Watson Medical Algorithm.
      • In the explanation Colors of light for the electromagnetic spectrum, Ponytail as a doctor looks at a full body x-ray of Cueball and exclaims that ... It looks like your body is full of bones to which Cueball replies Oh no! Is there any cure? Well if he meets Watson he might have them all removed.
      • That comic came out about a month after the book so it may be viewed as a kind of reference to the problem with too many bones.
    • 1135: Arachnoneurology.
      • In the comic spiders weave a shirt for Beret Guy and under one of the bridges in Tall roads there is a ship whose sail is a spider web. Spiders are also shown in Tree of Life where they are called Biters with eight legs.
    • 1376: Jump.
      • Has some similarities to what happens with Cueball in Playing fields when he jumps to score with his basketball, but then just keeps floating up along a straight line until twice the height of the hoop he yells Help!
  • There are also several items that are more generally just often used in xkcd comic, and thus not specially a reference to a given comic but rather to an entire category. Here is a list of some of the categories that are referenced in the book:
    • There are two Butterfly nets.
      • Both in relation to catching a soccer football, both in Playing fields and in Hole-making city boat.
    • There are several Space probes including all the Mars rovers (see much more detail on these two category links).
      • In Red world space car the Curiosity Rover is explained in details. But the rower is also shown inside the skyscraper in Sky Tougher.
      • In The sky at night Voyager 1 is shown.
      • Both of these as well as several other probes including all other successful missions to Mars are listed in Worlds around the sun.
    • There are several references to Sport, including all the main ones with their own category as well.
      • Especially in Playing fields where all of these major sports are mentioned:
        • American football aka Foot Ball (My country).
        • Baseball aka Stick Ball. This is also played inside the skyscraper in Sky toucher.
        • Basketball aka Circle Ball.
        • Soccer aka Foot Ball (Most other countries). This is also played on top of the Oil rig in Hole-making city boat
      • Other sports mentioned in that explanation are:
      • Finally a few more sports is just depicted without names:
      • Other explanation with sport are
        • Hole-making city boat with both soccer, table tennis and pool
        • Ten pin bowling is depicted three times with bowling alleys in the hull of the ship in The USS Laws of the Land and on the suspension of the longest bridge in Tall roads and a bowling alley is used for measuring length in How to count things.
        • Heavy metal power building with two people fencing.
    • Animals are a big part of several comics:
      • Tree of life is "simply" about all life, and here almost all animals used regularly in xkcd are mentioned.
      • Tree shows lots of the life that can live in or near a tree and thus also several animals.
      • A pegasus like horse, but with helicopter wings instead of bird wings are shown in Sky boat with turning wings.
      • Octopuses are used in six explanations:
        • Shared space house, The USS Laws of the Land (two), Big flat rocks we live on, Picture taker, Writing sticks and Tree of life.
      • Sharks are used in six explanations:
        • Heavy metal power building, The USS Laws of the Land, Big tiny thing hitter, Hole-making city boat, Tree of life and Sky toucher (two).
        • The shark's situation in Big tiny thing hitter reminds a little of the shark in 585: Outreach.
      • Giraffes are used twice
        • Four wight weight and length in How to count things and of course in the Tree of life.
      • Dinosaurs are not prominently featured but they are in two explanations:
        • In Tree of life three types of dinosaurs are shown, including both Velociraptors and Apatosaurus.
        • The latter type, Apatosaurus, has also managed to sneak into the Sky toucher, even though it is not allowed.
      • Squirrels are used in four explanations.
        • The most noticeable is in the explanation for Boxes that make clothes smell better where the drawing of the squirrel at the bottom right even have a notation. Above the squirrel there is an arrow pointing to it and this text:
Why is this in your house?"
  • The other squirrels are under the the pipe at the bottom of the explanation for Big tiny thing hitter, in the top of the Tree and of course in the Tree of life.
  • There are plenty of other animals including for instance Whales and ants who appear in several explanations

Book Cover[edit]

Cueball can be seen on the cover overlooking some of the labeled pictures. It was thus already early clear that the book would explore the themes labeled on the front cover which includes astronomy, constellations, and geology.

There are several funny "explanations" on the cover, like labels on arrows pointing to the title and to Randall's name explaining that this is:

  • Big words that tell you what this book is
  • My name

The back cover of the book was also available:

Preview pages[edit]

  • Part of the Curiosity entry (note that red was not used inside the book, only blue):

Space Car.jpeg

Promotion at the xkcd home page[edit]

Thing Explainer promoted on xkcd.PNG

Word decoder[edit]

Part of the fun of reading the book is finding out what 'complex' word the simple word phrases are encoding. For example, the International Space Station Supply vehicle described as 'bird' is Cygnus, and the one described as 'Pretend Fire Animal' is Dragon.