Thing Explainer

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Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words is a book by Randall Munroe where things are explained in the style of Up Goer Five (which is 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.

The book will among other explore 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.

Release day

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 books 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.

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 listen at the back of the book under The ten hundred words people use the most. In this way others can try to create similar 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

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

The ten hundred words people use the most

  • Since thousand is not among the 1000 most common words in the English language, he has to write it like 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.
  • He do 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 works.
      • 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 with Helpers he specifically notes that he will like to thanks people even though their names are not in the list.
    • So he writes them out anyway!

References to comics

  • These obvious references have already been mentioned above:
  • But there are also other comics that are directly or indirectly references in the book.
  • One of the most obvious examples is this comic which is directly featured in the book:
    • 1388: Subduction License.
      • 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 wight of a cat, although this is listed as 4 kg in the comic and 5 kg in the book...
    • There is a Squirrel.
      • In the explanation for Boxes that make clothes smell better there is a drawing of a squirrel at the bottom right. Above this there is an arrow pointing to it and the text:
Why is this in your house?"

Book Cover

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

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

Space Car.jpeg

Promotion at the top of the xkcd home page

  • At the time the comic 1612: Colds came out, the top part of xkcd had been changed to promote the book.

Thing Explainer promoted on xkcd.PNG

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Ooooh, I know I get this one for x-mas, but there is soooo long until then... Nice to have something you really want for x-mas again. Only 20 more days to go. Can't wait.--Kynde (talk) 13:06, 4 December 2015 (UTC)

I put in the promotional picture. If someone could make it appear smaller I would appreciate this. I'm not sure how to do this without changing the file's resolution. Which I do not wish to do. It should be possible to see this version of the picture by opening the file. --Kynde (talk) 13:09, 4 December 2015 (UTC)

If the 1000 (ten hundred) word vocabulary is still too complex and you want to explain things in even simpler terms, you might take a look at the dictionary. It explains the 2000 most common English words using a set of only 360 words (the "semantic atoms and molecules" from the lessons). It is intended for 2nd-language learners, but interesting from the perspective of explaining things using reductive paraphrase. Lexyacc (talk) 23:31, 4 July 2016 (UTC)

I am pretty sure that in between the solar panels on the "shared space house" is the barrel boy from comic 1108.162.212.95

I wish for explanations for Thing Explainer, using more words. For instance, when explaining cells, I'm not sure what is the "bag filler" (the Golgi apparatus? but does it make bags of death water aka lysosomes), the strange boxes (???), the empty pockets (???), the doping substances they produce (???). It also took me a while to guess and google what ships visited the ISS. There, the "big carrier from many countries" seems the European ATV (, but that flew to the ISS 5 times, not 4. Since I'm clueless and Munroe isn't, I must be missing something. --Blaisorblade (talk) 20:39, 7 September 2019 (UTC)

Hm, the empty boxes are probably vesicles and vacuoles, including secretory vesicles (, used to make hormones including steroids. While I finally found this out, each time it takes googling and luck — googling the nontechnical terms fails; here I looked at --Blaisorblade (talk) 20:48, 7 September 2019 (UTC)