And then Aidan Baker asked her to bake a cake as a prize in a competition for Cambridge librarians that he was organising. This was to write an account of the recent Libraries at Cambridge conference (Twitter handle #lac14) using only the thousand most commonly used words in the English language. Doing this is best described as "simple but not easy"; you can tell straight away which words are allowed by typing your text in the Up-Goer Five text editor, but the vocabulary is extremely limited. The word "thousand" isn't in the list, for instance (you have to use "ten hundred"). And, more to the point, nor is the word "library". You can see the full list (in alphabetical order) here, and read a piece of "Up-Goer Five speak" by Aidan.
You can get a reasonable idea of whether Up-Goer Five is likely to allow a word by looking it up on WordCount, a surprisingly addictive little web tool that lists the 86,000 commonest words in English in order: from "the" at no. 1 to "fireballs" at no. 86,000. There is a good but not perfect correlation between Up-Goer Five's vocabulary and WordCount's top thousand; "library" is well outside at no. 1252, but "thousand" is no. 989. WordCount, however, is based on the British National Corpus, which was compiled in 1994, and thus reflects English usage about twenty years ago. "Computer" is well up at 705 (and also in the Up-Goer Five list) but "laptop" is only at 35,149 and "smartphone" doesn't appear at all. It would be interesting to know where those words would appear if the list was re-written today.
The competition was judged by a simple vote at the Cambridge librarians' brown bag lunch on Wednesday February 5, and Ursula was there to join in the discussion and present the cake. She also brought chocolate tiffin (interestingly neither "cake" nor "chocolate" appear in UpGoer Five's list). There had been a lot of interest in it, but not many actual entries. Several of those at the meeting had had a go but not got far enough to enter. One confessed that he had been stymied from the start by not being able to put the word "conference" (WordCount's #1015) in.
Discussion turned on comparison between Up-Goer Five and other basic English vocabularies. As long ago as the 1920s, the linguist and philosopher Charles Kay Ogden invented "basic English", a core vocabulary of 850 words with a simplified grammar for teaching English as a second language. Not surprisingly, Basic English does not include the word "computer", although Ogden would very likely have come across the word, which was first used to refer to a machine in the 1860s. But despite its age, and despite its even smaller size, the Basic English vocabulary seems to be more practically usable than Up-Goer Five's, probably because it deals with the words that are most useful rather than those that are most used.
In the end, those at the meeting awarded second prize - and Ursula's cake - to Diana Wood, for a summary of the whole conference. Her entry, entitled "Libraries@Cambridge 2014 - Up-Goer Five style!" reads so well that you might almost forget the limitations of the thousand-word vocabulary. Until you come to the "water car", that is. Well, with "ship" (#2140 in WordCount) and "boat" (#1888) ruled out of bounds, what else do you call such a thing? (The entry includes a handy picture of a ship in case anyone is still confused.) The first prize, a voucher from Cambridge Wine Merchants kindly donated by Lyn Bailey, Cambridge's classics librarian, was awarded to graduate trainee Emily Downes. She set herself the extra challenge of writing her entry in haiku form, and it worked extremely well. You can read it here.