What's the Word? We Can Help Feed the Hungry.

Big words can become big donations of rice to the world's needy.
Big words can become big donations of rice to the world's needy. (Istockphoto)
Sunday, November 4, 2007

What if just knowing what a word meant could help feed hungry people around the world? Well, at FreeRice ( http://www.freerice.com) it does. Go to the site, which launched last month, and you'll see a word and four definitions. Choose the right meaning and the site's advertisers will donate 10 grains of rice to the World Food Program, a United Nations agency that is the world's largest humanitarian organization. Keep on guessing (the quiz gets progressively more arduous, not to mention vexatious), and for each correct answer 10 more grains of rice will head to people who need it.

Now, admittedly, 10 grains is a piddling amount. But the totals have grown exponentially. On Oct. 7, the day the site launched, 830 grains of rice were donated. Barely a bowlful. Eight days later, the total was 6,403,920. And when this article went to press, 537,163,380 grains of rice had been donated. That's more than 14 metric tons. Not bad for a month's worth of people figuring out definitions. Want a sample? Okay, does the word "pettifogger" mean a mine entrance, an unscrupulous lawyer, avoidance or potpourri?

The site is the brainchild of John Breen, a 50-year-old computer programmer from Bloomington, Ind., who has tackled hunger online before, first with the Hunger Site ( http://www.thehungersite.com) and, earlier this year, with the launch of Poverty.com, a poverty awareness site that he hopes people will visit to learn about helping to get more funding for international poverty relief.

"I wanted to have something fun to do that wasn't just a waste of time and had some vaguely redeeming value," Breen says with a laugh. He decided on the vocabulary quiz -- and entered all 10,000 words and definitions himself -- after watching his son preparing for the SAT.

"It's hard to get people to read about hunger and poverty," Breen says. "It's kind of depressing, so I had to think of an entertaining way to draw people in. Hopefully, they'll also click on to Poverty.com and find out what needs to be done."

Oh, and if in your clicking you come across "pettifogger," it means unscrupulous lawyer. Yeah, it's sort of cheating to tell you, but it's for a good cause.

-- Joe Heim

© 2007 The Washington Post Company