Big Ideas, Little Words


In my office hangs a poster of the Up-Goer Five.

For those not blessed to have seen it, the Up-Goer Five is the brilliant creation of the xkcd comic strip. Essentially, it’s a drawing of the Saturn V rocket, with captions written using only the 1,000 most-frequently used words in the English language.

The poster hangs in my office in part because it is awesome, and in part as a reminder and challenge to myself.

NASA very frequently falls into a very arcane language, full of words like microgravity and PDR and gimbal and a frequent off-nominal use of nominal. If you live in that world, it can require a moment’s thought to think of those concepts not in those terms. If you don’t live in that world, all the sigmas and deltas might as well be Greek. (If you live in that world — nice one, huh? If you don’t, that was a joke.)

The Up-Goer Five is a reminder that my job is to make that world understandable to those that live outside that world, and that doing so means remembering that not everyone speaks NASA-ese.

I was thus delighted to discover The Up-Goer Five Text Editor, a clever homage someone created to the strip. Basically, it lets you try to write using only the same vocabulary used by the strip, those 1,000 most-used words.

And let me tell you, it’s hard.

When I first discovered it, I tried taking a passage from something I was writing and modifying it to fit within that constraint. The results weren’t pretty, and probably made less sense than the original — “When the Sky-Place Space Work Place went into space in 1973, it was the last time the Up-Goer Five went up. The Up-Goer Five had been to a big bright space rock not long before … When New-Up-Goer flies in 2017, it will be the first time a new big up-goer has flown since the Up-Goer took Sky-Place into space in 1973.”

Brilliant, huh?

But it has made me think a lot more about the words I use, and whether they’re really the best ones I could pick. I’m not going to say it’s completely changed my writing yet, but it does help.