Sharpen your vocabulary for a good cause

by Eszter Hargittai on January 4, 2008

Time Sink!

I haven’t posted one of these in a while. The twist: this one has a worthy cause attached to it.

Free Rice

Test your vocabulary skills and donate rice at the same time.

It’s interesting to note which countries have already fulfilled their pledge in international aid to address world hunger, and which countries haven’t taken any concrete steps. Can you guess?



Linca 01.04.08 at 2:38 pm

On the European Tribune we’ve come to the conclusion that, given the amount of grains of rice in a bag (a whole lot), the obscurity of the website’s operator, and the amount of commercial adds the site shows on each page load, this is probably a profitable commercial enterprise which actually helps very little…


LizardBreath 01.04.08 at 2:45 pm

As a vocabulary quiz, though, I’m impressed. I rarely run into one that can frequently come up with words I simply don’t know.


eudoxis 01.04.08 at 3:02 pm

I learned about this one from my niece over the holidays. She was at level 49, I guess it’s hard to get to 50. It’s a popular game in her classics department.


Barry 01.04.08 at 3:16 pm

WTF? Why should somebody donate rice for me taking a vocabulary quiz?


eudoxis 01.04.08 at 3:23 pm

We also like the Set Daily Puzzle. Alas, no grains of rice.

On development aid, the US has spent a large proportion of its aid on debt relief for Iraq. I think that can be included in money spent on the war effort rather than aid.


Eszter 01.04.08 at 3:34 pm

I LOVE the Set game. I gave about 5-6 of them as presents over the last month (the physical version that is:).


lemuel pitkin 01.04.08 at 4:51 pm

Isn’t it common knowledge that these kind of promises of third-party donations in return for some trivial action are all complete scams?

On the other hand, if you’re looking for more time sinks there’s a great collection of them here.


Eszter 01.04.08 at 5:13 pm

LP – If you’re going to bother linking to a Snopes page then why not link to the one about this specific site, the one that notes the claims on Free Rice are true?

And so yeah, I guess it’s not common knowledge that these types of things can be quite different.


Bloix 01.04.08 at 5:19 pm

Free Rice is not a scam. See, e.g.

Linca and lemuel pitkin, you’d think you’d be willing to spend 10 seconds on google before falsely accusing a total stranger of being a liar and a cheat.

Barry, you could have answered your own question in the time it took you to type your post.

I enourage everyone to try it. I can hold at 46 or 47 with comfort, get to 48 or 49 without really knowing what the words mean but being good at guessing, and on rare occasions I can hit 50 and even hold it for a word or two before tumbling back down.


lemuel pitkin 01.04.08 at 5:25 pm

I didn’t accuse Eszter of being a liar and a cheat, I asked a question.

Turns out “scam” is too strong a word. But I remain unconvinced that playing the game represents contributing to a good cause in any meaningful way.

(Maybe I’m just cynical because I knew a department secretary who had found about two dozen of these sites and spent an inordinate amount of time methodically clicking through them each day and buttonholing others to do likewise. Was kind of sad.)


Robin Green 01.04.08 at 5:30 pm

China Mieville (whose books have previously been the subject of a CT seminar, which was what got me interested in them in the first place) wrote a satirical short story about a website which is obviously meant to be a parody of TheHungerSite (an earlier counterpart of Free Rice). I quite liked it. The story appears in his collection “Looking for Jake and other stories”.

As you might expect from a Trotskyist, he casts a distinctly cynical eye on such sites (although in a very funny way).

But this post is almost redundant really, since post #1 has already debunked the site quite factually.


Michael B Sullivan 01.04.08 at 5:39 pm

It is a for-profit site, and it’s not particularly helpful in terms of alleviating hunger.

On the other hand, nobody’s forcing you to click on the ads, and, hey, “not particularly helpful” is likely still more than what you were planning on doing for starving people this morning. And it’s a pretty fun vocabulary quiz game, if you like that kind of thing. So why not?


Linca 01.04.08 at 6:17 pm

To put it a another way, assuming a 5mm^3 grain of rice, they claim to have donated 9 billion grains – which means 12 m^3. That’s a small truckload.


Watson Aname 01.04.08 at 7:20 pm

I’m a bit surprised all the comments are on the vocabulary quiz, none on the numbers.

It seems that the more modest a countries goals are, the less likely to have met them or even have a concrete plan to do so. No surprise to see the US near the bottom on this, I guess.

As for the web game, the attempts to `debunk’ this are kind of amusing. It looks like something that is clearly more effective at assuaging guilt for poking around on the web when you should be working than for food relief, but calling it a scam is pretty silly, and nobody seems to be making strong claims for what it might achieve aid wise.


Dave 01.04.08 at 7:21 pm

Strikes me the ‘average’ grain of rice is at least 8mm long by c. 3mm diameter, which makes it some [erk, clunk, bzzz] 56.5mm\3… or 12 truckloads?? Anyway, it’s just a game.


eszter 01.04.08 at 7:51 pm

The reactions here are intriguing. Maybe most of you have never seen my “Time sink” recommendations. Their central purpose is to offer some amusement although this one also happens to be educational. (Well, I actually believe many of them are educational in one way or another, but this one is more overt about that.) Plus there is the whole poverty aid discussion that one could’ve had as Watson Aname notes.

LP, I think the “liar and a cheat” was seen as targeted at the site owner. My point is that if you took the trouble to look up a scam on Snopes then why didn’t you look up Free Rice on Snopes? I did, before posting the site.


mijnheer 01.05.08 at 12:16 am

With some luck, I managed to get my vocabulary score up to 50, at which point I quit because I knew it was unlikely I could maintain that level. The upshot is that I’m not generating any more rice for the poor. Perhaps if they e-mailed me a gold star, I’d be willing to fall back to a lower level.


aaron 01.05.08 at 12:29 am

the vocabulary word-assigning algorithm is not dynamic enough. i got to the point where, due to sheer exposure, i memorised all the level 50 words and if i never make a silly clicking mistake i can just roll through the same 50 words forever. but eventually the program thinks i’m a bot and tries to force me into hitting my browser ‘back’ button which sometimes glitches into making an incorrect choice for the immediately previous word. so now i’ve memorised both levels 49 and 50 and promptly forgotten the meaning of all the words in between levels 35 and 48, inclusive.


Linca 01.05.08 at 12:38 am

And bloix, I didn’t accuse the owner of being a liar and a cheat. It’s a nice time sink, that uses its “food aid” pretext as a marketing ploy.


sara 01.05.08 at 2:03 am

I am good at guessing vocabulary (due to studying Latin and Greek), so the words often become absurdly lexiphanic and I stop playing either because I can’t stop laughing or because I think “Even Gene Wolfe wouldn’t use these.” The words also repeat after awhile.

I also hope nobody is counting out the grains of rice by hand. They probably use estimates (1000 grains weigh x grams).


Katherine 01.05.08 at 12:02 pm

Good lord, it seems it’s impossible to do something even vaguely “good” without getting some stick or cynicism directed in your direction, unless you are wearing a hair shirt and shouting how you hate WalMart. For the record, I barely even noticed the ads scrolling past, let alone clicked on them, whilst having a go. And had a bit of fun and contributed a small amount of rice into the bargain. Where on earth is the harm?


sharon 01.06.08 at 12:10 pm

From the site’s FAQs:

Does FreeRice make any money from this?

No, it does not. FreeRice runs the site at no profit.

What is Michael B Sullivan’s evidence for the assertion that it’s a for profit site? The presence of advertisements? The ads pay for the rice. If you suggest otherwise you are accusing the site owners of lying and probably, moreover, criminal fraud; perhaps you should consider reporting them to the police rather than just slandering them on a blog.

And #14 has it about right.


Jacob Christensen 01.06.08 at 9:48 pm

Misology was an interesting addition to my vocabulary.


Lisa @ Corporate Babysitter 01.06.08 at 11:07 pm

The site was also promoted to children who I’m guessing played a lot over the winter break. I hope they didn’t think that their vocabulary knowledge was actually helping to feed people, when in fact the advertisers were.

The ads also changed based on how well you did on the vocabulary tests. Why else would a company pay to advertise on this site, if it wasn’t a targeted way to make money?

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