To create Thing Explainer, Randall drew and labeled pictures to—well—explain various scientific and cultural ideas, but he chose to write all the text in the book using only a thousand commonly-used English words, just like he did when he published the comic “Up-Goer Five”.
Using the tool he made, you can write like that, too. Um, that is, you can try. (Good luck.)
The book straddles the border between humor and science. On the one hand, transforming simplified English labels back into conventional ones makes us chuckle; sometimes the “simple” labels are quite obscure, thus deciphering them can be both tricky and rewarding, like the word game Taboo. On the other hand, the simplified English goes a long way towards actually explaining things; science books sometimes raise as many questions as they answer because the explanations in them use terms that are as unfamiliar to readers as whatever the terms are intended to explain.
I think the book is best understood as Randall’s clever way of explaining stuff he knows about to clever people who might or might not know as much as he does on the subjects he chose to address. Seen in this light, the book helps us appreciate the power of words as flexible, useful tools in the hands of a talented wordsmith, and gives us the sense that, in principle, there is nothing under the sun anywhere in the universe (including the sun) that can’t be explained in an approachable way.
See below for when and why I read the book, and a list of the explained things.
Question: What do you call a cross between a collection of hilarious jokes and a collection of dull academic papers written by a dyed-in-the-wool Chomskyan linguist?
Answer: A big disappointment.
Jokes sit at the intersection of language, cognitive psychology and illusions, all topics that fascinate me. Sadly, however, I was rather bored by Jokes and the Linguistic Mind. I think the reason was not that the author explained the jokes but that she did it in what I felt was an unnecessarily long-winded, robotic, repetitive, jargony kind of way. Anyone who explains jokes takes the well-known risk of killing the frog to understand it better, but I think once you’ve killed the frog, you should jolly well stop beating it like a dead horse.
Silver lining? I love the MC Escher stairscape on the cover. Moreover, many of the jokes used as examples of various linguistic phenomena were funny. See below for more on the aspects of the book I enjoyed.
Anyway, I’m posting this photo because I was surprised to see the word “ain’t” used in a Singapore ad. It struck me as especially strange because the ad is for a luxury service. Not, you know, grits or cornbread muffins or something similarly folksy and homey.
The ad says:
It’s not luxury if it ain’t clean.
After I thought about it, I realized there’s a third level of weirdness, which is that the first half of sentence uses “it’s” and the second half of the sentence uses “ain’t”. I guess I would have expected two uses of “it’s” or two uses of “ain’t”, not one of each.
But maybe the contrast between the two contractions explains the whole thing.
The more standard word “it’s” goes with the idea of “luxury” and the more casual word “ain’t” goes with the idea of “not clean”.
In shows like Lie to Me and House, M.D., there is one mystery per episode. There’s only one mystery—well, one murder mystery; lots of minor “mysteries” and secrets—in Season 1 of Broadchurch, which lasts 8 episodes. I suppose I was expecting a police procedural, but this is a drama. There are lots of long, musical shots of sunsets and waves crashing, and the whole thing feels very melancholy, very human. It wasn’t happy, but it was clever and it was satisfying.