If Anu Garg's A.Word.A.Day email didn't exist, someone would have to invent it. That someone would need to be a wordaholic computer nerd to sustain the service that Garg and his small team have provided for 25 years: a daily email celebrating the words of the English language, any of them, one a day, every day.
"No vacations for me!" Garg exclaims. It is a joke but also not. To keep sending out a researched lexicographical email every day, someone has to keep doing the lexicographical research.
And forget repeating the words. He has created databases to ensure that doesn't accidentally occur.
"Everything we do is online," he explains. "So I do travel for speaking and for vacation, but I always carry my laptop. And we schedule words a few weeks in advance.
"In the beginning, when I was in graduate school and I was hosting this on my school's computers, things were very, very different than today. Back then were hiccups, and I missed some days. But for the last, I don't know, 20 years or more, not a day skipped."
The A.Word.A.Day email that Garg's Seattle-area-based Wordsmith.org sends to nearly 400,000 subscribers in 171 countries goes well beyond simply defining some random word. An online community of recipients comments on the daily emails, sometimes furiously; a monthly email newsletter shares comments and word-news items from around the world; and there are other services programmed into the website.
The website is a visual fast (as opposed to a "feast") with text and lots of white space.
"What else do you need?' he rhetoricalicates. "I'm not against pictures. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and there is some truth to that, but I think we can paint pictures with words, too. And if you do a good job of it you don't need any color or flashy graphics."
The website includes tools of keen interest to those who play word games.
■ The Wordserver offers look-up services via email. It will reply to an email seeking definitions, synonyms, decipherings of an acronym. If you ask it to define "rhetoricalicate," it replies, "No matches found." Because I just made that word up.
■ The Internet Anagram Server is a letter-rearranging fool — err, tool. Did you notice that "no vacations for me" anagrams to "Caviars Footmen, No"? The server found that and hundreds of other options.
■ The Pangram Finder is a tool that will search any text for pangrams — phrases that use all the letters in the alphabet.
There is The Anagram Times, a blog-style page on which contributors share animated anagrams of news headlines. A storefront sells Garg's two books about words, and caches of quotes and whimsy are stashed around the site. But the daily email is the marquee item.
"Some people in some corporations, system administrators, they use this as a kind of a heartbeat check: OK, their email is working and everything is in order, because they receive this every single day," Garg says.
Each week has a theme. The theme for the week of May 13 was portmanteaux — words made by blending words. Garg usually explains the theme on Mondays, and so the May 13 email came with a statement explaining that portmanteau-ing words (like Brad + Angelina=Brangelina) is no recent invention. The May 13 word — hermaphrodite (Hermes + Aphrodite) — arose c. 1400.
The word May 14 was "meeple." The meeple email included:
■ Pronunciation — "MEE-puhl" — with a link to an audio rendition.
■ Definition: "noun: a game piece shaped in a stylized human form."
■ History, or etymology: a blend of my + people or mini + people. Earliest documented use: early 21st century.
■ Example of its use in a sentence:
"In 'Five Tribes,' players maneuver wooden meeples around the board, with each meeple having a special power." — Jenn Bartlett; Introducing Euro Games; Library Journal (New York); Feb 15, 2018.
■ An unrelated "thought for the day":
"Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence." — Hal Borland, author and journalist (1900-1978)
■ Links to the week's other words, and a sponsor advertisement.
Meeple. A word associated with board games. Got it. Thanks, A.Word.A.Day.
Garg began sending word-a-day emails to fellow students at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in March 1994 while he was earning his master's in computer science.
"I started this as a hobby when I was in graduate school and it remained a hobby" for the 16 years that he worked as a research engineer, programmer or consultant for AT&T Labs, MCI and other corporations. Eventually the email list grew so much he was working two jobs. He chose Wordsmith.
"I've been doing it full time for what, 18 years? 19 years? And, yes, we need help, so we have editors and people who help me coordinate our feed and so on. But the core part, the picking words, researching them, writing them, that's all what I do," he says.
He does his word work all the time, he says, even while traveling to speaking engagements or to visit family in India. But he doesn't focus on them one theme at a time.
"I prepare these many weeks in advance. So I have a draft of lots of words in different states of preparation. ... I come up with ideas. I make a note of them, and sometimes I might have only two or three words on the theme. But eventually I find enough. Then I write about them. I find usage examples. I write an intro. It takes a lot of time but eventually everything comes together and then we schedule them, and then, again, I can't wait to hear what our readers think of.
"And of course they don't disappoint."
Words and readers' reactions are great fun to read but how does Wordsmith make a living?
"I have so much fun that I feel I should pay somebody for the joy of playing with words," Garg says. "We try to follow the public broadcasting model." Emails have sponsors, and biannual membership drives ask readers to donate.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary, Wordsmith held a contest that challenged subscribers to four word games. The challenge had a theme: anything that happened in the past 25 years. It also had prizes, including trips to tour the headquarters of the Oxford English Dictionary in the United Kingdom and the headquarters of Merriam-Webster in Springfield, Mass.
Here are the four games, with a description of each from Garg, illustrated by the winners who were selected by panels of judges.
"So limerick, as you know, it gets five lines," Garg says. "First two lines, they rhyme. Third and fourth lines, they rhyme, and the fifth line rhymes with the first line. And there is a meter."
It goes like this:
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM da da RUM
da DUM da da BAH
da DUM da da PAH
da DUM da da DUM da da BUM
"But that is the mechanical part," he says. "The human part is where you tell a story in five lines."
First prize went to Martin Eiger of Montville, N.J.:
We were facing the dread Y2K.
I went into hiding that day.
I look back, nineteen years,
At my worries and fears.
If it's safe to come out now, I may.
Take a phrase and rearrange its letters to make another phrase.
"Oh, anagrams are so — much — fun," he says, grinning through the phone. "So. Mother-in-law. If you take the letters from the phrase mother-in-law you know what you could make out of those letters? Woman Hitler. It's just so much fun."
David Tuffs of Monterey, Calif., won first prize for this anagram:
Charlottesville Virginia = Alt-Right violence is viral
Pangrams contain each letter of the alphabet in one phrase or clause.
"I think everybody's familiar with that old pangram about the quick brown fox," Garg says. "If you have learned how to type you know it. And that's OK, but there isn't much going on in that pangram. Quick brown fox jumps. So what?
"Again, I think it's possible to say something interesting, to tell a story, maybe even funny."
Eric Tentarelli of Newbury, N.H., won first for this 48-letter pangram:
Emoji having been popularized, texts acquire wacky faces.
"Come up with a new word," Garg says.
Among the winners:
Facerift, n. Undergoing a breach or estrangement from Facebook.
"After it came to light that unscrupulous third parties had been stealing personal information from the world's leading social media platform, many of its users experienced a facerift."
— First prize for Paul Angiolillo of Weston, Mass.
Coining words is harder than finding interesting existing words.
"English has more than half a million words, and one lifetime is not enough to meet all of them," Garg says. "But this is what I do.
"There's so many words. I pick those that are more interesting than others. I mean, I think all words are interesting. Each word has its story, just like humans. You might meet somebody on the street, and they might look like the most ordinary person. I might say, 'Hmm, they look kinda boring.' Once you get to know their story you'll find that each person has a fascinating background, where they were born, where they grew up and all the paths they took to reach where they are today.
"Words work the same way."
CORRECTION: Wordsmith.org is a website founded by Anu Garg. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Garg’s site.
Style on 05/20/2019
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