If you’ve ever wanted to turn your meager (or massive) scraps of unproductive time at the office into something more worthwhile than ad revenue for Fark.com, you may want to consider visiting the FreeRice website. A nonprofit site run in concert with the United Nations World Food Programme, it does two things at once: teaches vocabulary by quizzing visitors, and uses the resulting revenue (generated by online ads) to distribute rice to hungry people in more than 75 countries. At a rate of 20 grains per correct answer, you’re not going to save the world over the course of an afternoon, but the site does create a mild buzz of self-satisfaction after you’ve stacked up 1,000 grains or so. According to Snopes.com, as of Nov. 17, 2007, the number of grains of rice given away was 2,457,120,420.
The concept is elegant and pleasing, but the execution is brilliant. The site’s treasury of words is stocked by professional lexicographers, so the meanings are clear and accurate. And even if you’re a professional wordsmith, the site still holds the potential to teach.
The words at FreeRice start simple, and ramp up quickly to the utterly arcane. For example, after first visiting the site, you may be prompted to guess that oval means elliptical. And painstaking means diligent. But then you need to grapple with harlequinade (which means buffoonery). And sempiternity (forever). And assiduity (diligence, again). And escutcheon (shield). And eft (newt). The words come without context, and at higher levels, you find yourself reaching desperately for anything that might help—Latin roots, cognates, the tiny snatches of whatever foreign languages you might happen to be acquainted with. Conservative estimates suggest that English has more than 450,000 words, and it seems like FreeRice is utilizing a pretty sizable chunk of that storehouse. By the time you’ve got through a mere fraction of them, you’ll feel as sagacious as an augur.