The webcomic xkcd posted a comic a while ago that explains rocket science using “only the ten hundred words people use the most often.” It’s a great idea, and clearly the creator thought so too, since he’s now writing an entire book around the concept. He has also made freely available a tool that allows you to write using only those one thousand most common words.
Here is the first sentence of an old post (Animal visual illusions), as I originally wrote it: “Animals interact visually all the time.” Here is the same sentence rewritten using only those thousand most common words: “Animals do things with each other using what their eyes see all the time.” The second version is much harder to understand; there is definitely value in having more than a thousand words to work with.
But what about words that don’t represent some especially nuanced or complex concept, but exist for the sake of specificity: labels, like bird species names? Dark-eyed Junco does not pass muster in the xkcd word checker tool, unsurprisingly. I can get as far as Dark eyed small brown bird that jumps along the ground and has white on the outside of its — but now I’m in trouble: tail isn’t allowed; neither is butt feathers or bottom fan. I have to switch directions and go instead with: Dark eyed small brown bird that jumps along the ground and has a white stomach and black head and looks round in the cold.
That’s kind of silly, obviously, but I wonder if people might be more interested in birding if birders, instead of identifying an American Coot, recorded sightings of a sort-of-big black bird with a white face, red eyes, and long flat wide foot-fingers that likes to sit in the water and has yellow babies with red-skinned heads. (Words that I tried to use in this description that were not allowed: odd, weird, scary, toes, bald.)
The idea wouldn’t be to sacrifice specificity—no reporting a small brown bird, thanks—but to create specificity using a few basic words.
Here are some more bird species translated using xkcd’s word checking tool. Can you guess what each species is? (Scroll down for the answers.)
1. Small bird with a pointy head. The boy birds are bright red and the girl birds are pink and brown.
2. Big bird of the sort of bird that can learn to say what you say. This one is blue on the back and yellow on the front and lives for a very long time.
3. Tall pink bird with a long gray nose shaped like what you use to eat watery foods.
4. Black and white bird with a nose the color you get if you put yellow and red together. The nose is very long and big but is not too heavy, and the bird uses it to eat things like baby birds.
Extra credit: Big gray round bird with a pink face and legs, with sharp things on its wings for fighting.
Ready for the answers?
Last chance to stop scrolling down if you don’t want the answers yet!
Answers: 1) Northern Cardinal; 2) Blue-and-gold Macaw; 3) Roseate Spoonbill; 4) Toco Toucan; EC: Southern Screamer.
Try renaming your favorite bird species (or another animal!) using xkcd’s word checking tool (here’s the link again) and post it in the comments. It’s a neat way to think about your bird IDs, especially if you have been birding for a long time: how do you distinguish this bird from all others if you can’t say it has a flycatcher crest or ragged-looking primaries or is “a bit more slender than a thrush and with a longer tail”?
Then again, some bird species names are already perfect: Red winged black bird.
I love that xkcd comic: like a sort of verbal game of charades, especially fun when the word is tricky but familiar. (Who knew “spoon” wouldn’t be a very common word? )
I was surprised by “toes” and “orange” – especially since pink and gray are both allowed.
Good work on the descriptions. My attempts before finishing my coffee were met with a sea of red. Who knew I used such big words! Fun post.
You’re just too sophisticated! :-)
Kudos to you for getting it.
Round black and white bird with a food grabber colored like a life jacket. Flies in the sky and in the water. Lives on the tall edges of the land.
Nice – “food grabber” is much better than “nose”! I also like the thematic appropriateness of life jacket.
I discovered I’d rather do plumbing than xkcd. “A small gray and black bird with a yellow low back” made my head hurt. Back to the pipes!