Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Of Schadenfreude, Finials and No-Cost Rice

When my 13-year-old son recently used the word schadenfreude in casual conversation, I snapped to attention. "Where on earth did he learn that?" I wondered. This marvelous but obscure German word, which means "to feel joy at another's misfortune," is hardly everyday fodder for teenagers.

Turns out he picked it up from watching The Simpsons. I was briefly despondent that his television habit, which distresses me, could be deemed as even vaguely educational. But then I decided to pull a Homer and say "D'oh, big words can be good."

This might surprise some of my readers, who know me to be a passionate and vocal defender of short, simple words and short sentences. In most cases, I believe that what's called a "nickel" word (say, "purple") is superior to the $1 word ("aubergine") even though the latter is much more fun to say. Some quick research on the Web reveals a shocking statistic: Since 1960, the working vocabulary of Americans has dropped from 25,000 words to 10,000 words. For this reason alone, using short words generally makes good sense if you want to be understood.

And yet, and yet... I also subscribe to Mark Twain's theory -- "the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." Having a large, at-the-ready vocabulary is valuable because it helps you to use the right word in just the right place. Consider, for example, this paragraph from William Zinsser's book, On Writing Well.

"You have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. You must know what the essential tools are and what job they were designed to do. If I may labor the metaphor of carpentry, it is first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly and to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials."

Not all readers will understand the words "bevel" or "finial" -- but they can probably guess based on context without scurrying to their dictionaries. And if they do go to check, they will be amply rewarded. Those who already know will immediately appreciate the richness of the metaphor.

You might think of a big and diverse vocabulary as giving you more arrows in your quiver, more weapons in your arsenal or more money in the bank. It leaves you with options.

Of course, as a subscriber to Visual Thesaurus (erudite is your middle name!) you already know all this. So I won't have to twist your arm extra hard to get you to try a new, free vocabulary website launched this October by U.S. computer programmer John Breen. Basically an online vocabulary test, much like the SAT, it presents you with a series of multiple choice definitions. Your answer to each question is scored immediately and you move on to the next one. (You can set options so that when you leave your computer the site "remembers" your score for the next time.)

Think you're pretty smart already? Or perhaps you're fretting that you're not smart enough? No worries! The site, which is called FreeRice automatically adjusts to your vocabulary level. When you get a word wrong, the next word provided is from an easier level. When you get three consecutive words right, you move to a higher degree of difficulty. (Experts believe that this constant fine-tuning of levels is the best way to ensure you are learning and not just playing a game.) FreeRice has 50 levels in total, but staff say it's rare for people to get past level 48. Go ahead; knock yourself out.

But you're probably wondering about the site's odd name. And therein lies the best news of all. Each time you get a word right, the site's sponsors donate enough money to pay for 20 grains of rice for the United Nations' World Food Program. That may sound like a pitifully small amount, but the site has already raised more than five billion grains of rice in less than two months.

So you can build your vocabulary, become a better writer, have fun and help reduce world hunger -- all at the same time. How great is that?


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday January 16th 2008, 9:06 AM
Comment by: Liliane Y.
I'm learning - 'schadenfreude' is new to me. Thanks.
Wednesday January 16th 2008, 9:48 AM
Comment by: Sonny A.
Thanks for sharing the FreeRice site. What an excellent way to hone one's vocabulary! Not only am I pleased with my highest level but I also met new "word friends" along the way to boot!
Wednesday January 16th 2008, 10:20 AM
Comment by: lynn S.
Love the site. We signed up when my 10 year old son joined a national analogy club at his school. He uses it to look up definitions and word relationships and I get the emailed "word of the day". Without dating myself, it reminds me of my younger days when I couldn't wait to review the "Word Power" section of Reader's Digest.
Thursday January 17th 2008, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Max C.
Mr. Breen's website is definitely a means for averting epicaricacy. Of course, if you have ever experienced the slightest pang of hunger, you could never experience schadenfreude toward those who are truly hungry. Hunger is no Roman Holiday. I can think of no better way to elicit thought about ones station in life relative to the extremely erudite and most ignorant and instigate the fight against ignorance and hunger than utilizing the FreeRice website.
Thursday January 17th 2008, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Eileen N.
I've been using the Free Rice site for a few months now (...I didn't realise it was new at the time...) and find it not only great fun but very rewarding in that it does stretch your vocabulary, a rare occurrence in this 'dumbing down' age, but even better, it feeds people too! How good it that?!
Is it considered atrocious manners to say what level was achieved? Probably!
Thursday January 17th 2008, 1:26 PM
Comment by: Nora M.
Hmmmm...FreeRice.com is rather addicting!
Thursday January 17th 2008, 10:57 PM
Comment by: Ted W.
I have found myself captivated by this website. I've played it long enough to have a number of words show up four or five times. Now if I could just remember the right definition the next time that word come around. At 65, I am finding this to be as good as or better than solitaire, sudoku, or crossword puzzles for keeping my wits sharp.

Do you accept word contributions from players out in the field?

Many thanks!
Thursday January 17th 2008, 11:34 PM
Comment by: Ted W.
I have found myself captivated by this website. I've played it long enough to have a number of words show up four or five times. Now if I could just remember the right definition the next time that word come around. At 65, I am finding this to be as good as or better than solitaire, sudoku, or crossword puzzles for keeping my wits sharp.

By the way, just for those of us quantitative thinkers trying to visualize the actual volume of 5 billion grains of rice, how many railroad boxcars, or how many 5 lb. bags of rice is this? I tried between games this evening to count out grains of rice on the kitchen counter. Still have not finished the counting, but it looks as though 1 oz. of Riceland Extra Long Grain Natural Brown Rice might have about 2000 grains or so. In terms of volume, this amounts to 1/6 of a cup, or, 12,000 rice grains /cup. I think that is 600 correct word definitions per cup of rice for those of you wonder how much difference your playing this game might make for a hungry family. Cooked up, this cup of rice will make a meal for 2-4 people.

Do you accept word contributions from players out in the field?

Many thanks!
Monday January 21st 2008, 3:15 PM
Comment by: Michele S.
What a wonderful article. Thanks! I knew there was a Swedish word, "Skade Gladje", which means the same thing and now I know the German word for it. Wonder why there's no English word?

And yes, FreeRice is addicting! I'm amazed at how many words I guessed because I knew their root but I still can't get past level 46! ARGH!
Thursday January 24th 2008, 4:32 AM
Comment by: Susan B.
At 60 I have begun to realize how I have missed, longed for the intellectual stimulation I so much enjoyed in my youth, learning years, college and voracious reading. This site has awakened me to the joy of discovery,learning and intellectual growth. Thanks for the site and this comment section.
Thursday January 31st 2008, 3:57 AM
Comment by: gordon J.
The freerice link is the best link I've had in a long time! (found Viz-Thez. by just hoping somebody had done something and typing it directly into my browser -delightful surprise when I found you!)
I have a strong aversion to onlilne games but I'm afraid freerice is going to be an addiction. I've been living in non-English speaking countries for twenty-five years and am convinced I've lost at least 10,000 words from the vocabulary I once had. It was purely amazing how many times I just let my instinct guide the mouse and got it right.
Devlishly conceived, almost erotically thrilling to rush through it. And it feeds people -outstanding concept!!
Thank you.
But visualthesaurus is now my 2nd-favourite online destination.
Wednesday March 12th 2008, 10:07 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth S.
As a student teacher, I am thrilled to have found something worthwhile I can let my students do online. My attention was immediately caught when the title of the article contained a word I didn't already know - something of a rarity(I'm an English teacher). I'm posting this comment in between levels - we'll see how far I can get!

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