Saturday, September 21, 2013

Funneling your big ideas through a small vocabulary

Explaining hard ideas simply always is a challenge. Almost two years ago I blogged about Communicating clearly to nontechnical audiences - the grandmother test. This week on The Eloquent Woman blog I read Denise Graveline’s post, Big ideas don’t need big words. But, where do you find the small ones?

Denise mentioned one solution - a recent tool called the Up-Goer Five Text Editor that was created by Cambridge geneticist Theo Sanderson. He was inspired by one of Randall Munroe’s Xkcd cartoons that tried to explain the Saturn V moon rocket using just the ten hundred (thousand) most common English words. (That cartoon may have come from an earlier one about the Simple English Wikipedia). Up-Goer puts a red underline below each uncommon word you use, and thus invites you to reconsider that choice.  

Up-Goer Five has inspired tumblr sites like Ten Hundred Words of Science and Up Goer Your Ph.D. I think it’s a useful tool. It can force you into a childlike sense of wonder, like the following seven-minute video description of the Cassini spacecraft’s mission to Saturn and its moons:

Carl Zimmer ranted that Up-Goer Five was useless:

“.... Because an average six-year-old has a vocabulary, by some estimates, of 16,000 words. And an average adult's vocabulary is around 60,000. So Up Goer Five is only useful if you are going to talk to pre-schoolers. For an audience that's any older--even second grade--I can't see how it can help.”

I think Carl’s claim is hilariously xenophobic since it ignores the large number of people learning English as a second or foreign language. I grew up listening to shortwave radio, so I was familiar with how the Voice of America (VOA) uses Special English broadcasts as a teaching tool. The Special English Word Book has just 1580 words. For an example, read or listen to this VOA news item on Mars Rover Marks First Year on Red Planet.

VOA also has a wonderful English in A Minute series that explains idioms like Burn the Midnight Oil:

“Everybody knows that Americans burn a lot of oil. But is there a special oil that they burn in the middle of the night?”

Using simple language can make us laugh though. Sixty years ago Andy Griffith recorded a hilarious six-minute comic monologue about college football:

The title for this post was inspired by Sally James, and the oil drum image was based on this one from Wikimedia Commons.

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