Word hungry

Anu Garg’s Wordsmith.org is a community of more than a quarter million subscribers in about 170 countries.

March 23, 2013 07:23 pm | Updated 07:23 pm IST

Anu Garg

Anu Garg

He sends out a simple email every day, A.Word.A.Day, containing a word, its definition and etymology, and an example of its current contextual usage; this to more than a quarter million subscribers in about 170 countries. And he has been doing it since 1994.

The New York Times calls his mails “arguably the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace.” The Wall Street Journal compares him to Tom Sawyer, who has managed to alter others’ views about fence painting, and points to the numbers who happily join painting his wall with words.

Add the fact that this is an immigrant whose first language is not English, a man who has had no “English connection” till high school. Anu Garg is a man with a mission. This Seattle-settled Master in Computer Science, hailing from Uttar Pradesh, went out west two decades ago like any other techie. But eventually the love of words took over and he left corporate life to work full-time on spreading the joy of words. Wordsmith.org was born of this love, with a mission to spread the magic of words and completes 19 years of service to the “wordaholics” this month.

Wordsmith.org is but not restricted to the daily newsletter service A.Word.A.Day, which is free to subscribe or gift. There is more on offer here to the word hungry of the world. There is The Internet Anagram Server that can be used to generate anagrams of a word or phrase. The Wordserver offers dictionary, thesaurus, acronym, and anagram services by email. There’s also an anagram animation engine, a forum to discuss words and languages, and a few other services listed on the website.

Garg says there is no single incident which triggered this mission of words. “For as long as I can recall, I enjoyed reading. I literally read books from cover to cover. Then I started wondering where words come from. Who made them up? Who said that that opening in a wall was to be called a window? Then I discovered that each word comes with a biography. These words have fascinating stories to tell, if only we take the time to listen. For example, the word window comes from Old Norse in which it meant wind’s eye. How much more poetic can you get?”

And it’s no lonesome task now. There is a team in place including Garg’s wife Stuti who is the voice behind words. She records words in her mellifluous voice so that people can listen to an accurate pronunciation. She is also co-author of Garg’s very popular book, A Word A Day: A Romp Through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English . The book shot to #1 slot on Amazon, within hours of being made available and the first print sold out in three hours. A second print was ordered pronto, bringing the total print run to 25,000 and this was two weeks before the book’s official publication date, November 11, 2002. The book remained among top seller lists for quite a while. He has also published another volume of unusual words.

Garg says one of the best things about running Wordsmith.org is hearing back from readers. They share their stories about words: anecdotes from childhood, workplace, and beyond, of how words touch everyone, regardless of what we do or where we live. He cherishes this note from a disabled reader: “I am a fully disabled priest stuck out in the swamps about 35 miles north of Savannah, Georgia. A horrible radiation accident many years ago started taking its toll in the early 1980s. Of the two curses, pain and boredom, the latter is the heavier cross. Services such as yours are invaluable to me. Mind challenged, I am sometimes able to go to a nursing home and do services for the residents. You will help in this effort. A mind fallow becomes overgrown with the weeds of confusion and forgetfulness.”

The very first word Garg put up was zephyr, meaning a breeze from the west, but Garg says he had no reason for choosing that word. In fact he has no method for choosing a word at all and likes to think words choose him. “They raise their hands and say, ‘Pick me! Pick me! Write about me and share me with the world.’ Whenever I come across an unusual word in my reading a book, magazine, or newspaper, I make a note of it. Sometimes I actively look in the dictionaries for words that match interesting patterns. For example, Facetious is a word with all five vowels, once and only once, and in order.”

Garg organises words into themes. One week he might feature eponyms, words that are derived from people’s names (for example, shrapnel, after a British army officer). Another time he might feature words borrowed from a language, such as Sanskrit (e.g. nirvana). “The possibilities are endless,” he says.

The approach to words is playful rather than academic. “I like to have people see words come alive. They are born, they change with time, and sometimes they die too. That’s not to say that it’s not educational. We have a fair number of students who subscribe to AWAD.” His subscribers are from all walks of life, from accountants to zookeepers, writers to editors, engineers to professors, and many others, all people who share a joy of words.

Garg hopes to continue working with words in future too. “So many words, so little time.” He is concerned about people who think everyday words are good enough, afraid if they use an unusual word in their conversation or writing, others may not understand them. “It’s a catch-22. People don’t want to use an unusual word because it may be unknown to others, and it’s unknown because people don’t use it.”

Words are like colours on a palette, he says. “You don’t have to use all those colours in a painting, but it helps to be able to find just the right shade when you need it.”

Words perhaps work the same way. The right words help us to portray our thoughts and ideas just as we have them in our mind. Most of us don’t want to use an unusual word just for the sake of using it but if it fits, why not use it? And if you think you don’t know any, then it’s time to subscribe to wordsmith.org.

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