Of schadenfreude, finials and no-cost rice

Reading time: less than 3 minutes

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 marvellous 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 even vaguely educational. But then I decided to pull a Homer and say “D’oh, big words can be good.”

This might surprise some readers of Power Writing, who know me to be a passionate and vocal defender of short, simple words and short sentences. I am. 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. I just did some quick research on the Web and picked up 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.

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. 

All of this is a pep-talk designed to persuade 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 worried about not being 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 say 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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