Anu Garg's fascination with words started early in his life. Today he continues his tryst, with his email containing a-word-a-day sent out to over half a million people worldwide
Saurav Ganguly probably has no inkling as to what 'onychophagia' means. If he subscribed to A.Word.A.Day, he would know it stands for his habit of biting nails.
Since 1994, Anu Garg has been emailing one-word-a-day to subscribers. Along with the word, he also sends its definition, etymology and an example of usage. The first word this 35-year-old Seattle based engineer sent out was 'zephyr'. It means:
1: a breeze from the west; also: a gentle breeze,
2: any of various lightweight fabrics and articles of clothing
Today's word is 'dehisce'. It means:
1. To burst open, as the pod of a plant
2. To gape
When Garg wrote the small program to send his favourite words to his family and friends by email, little did he know it would grow into a community of 525,000 linguaphiles from over 206 countries. Incidentally, the word 'linguaphiles' was coined by Garg himself in 1994 and was accepted into a dictionary six years later (in the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000).
For Mumbai based writer and journalist, Rohit Gupta, a Google search yielded the AWAD site. The convenience of learning a new word every day won him over. "I think after academic life my vocabulary may have remained static, even deteriorated. Very few dictionaries can make the etymology of a simple word so interesting," says this word lover who is now writing his second book - a novelized history of Mumbai.
Surprisingly, Garg who was brought up in UP, India, did not study English till the 6th standard, but remembers being fascinated by words, "Even as a child I preferred books with text over picture books." He left the country at age 25 to attend a Case Western Reserve University scholarship in the USA.
In November last year, Garg's first book, 'A Word A Day: A Romp Through Some of the Most Unusual Words in English' based on his daily servings was very well received. The initial copies were quickly mopped up by Garg's subscribers who had prior knowledge of its release. The book remained in Amazon's top 100 sellers for two weeks.
A selection of words featured in A.W.A.D that will make you a surefire success at scrabble!
OPSIMATH (OP-si-math) noun
One who begins learning late in life
GONZO (GON-zo) adjective
Having a bizarre, subjective, idiosyncratic style, especially in journalism
HOTSY-TOTSY (HOT-see TOT-see) adjective, also hotsie-totsie
Just right; perfect
OBSIDIAN (ob-SID-ee-uhn) noun
A dark volcanic glass formed by rapid cooling of lava
MAECENAS (mee-SEE-nuhs, mi-) noun
A generous patron or supporter, especially of art, music, or literature
LEXIS (LEK-sis) noun
The total set of words in a language as distinct from morphology; vocabulary
ANDRAGOGY (AN-druh-go-jee) noun
The methods or techniques used to teach adults
John Simpson, chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary graced the jacket of the book with this quote: "AWADies will be familiar with Anu Garg's refreshing approach to words: words are fun and they have fascinating histories. The people who use them have curious stories to tell too, and this collection incorporates some of the correspondence received by the editors at the AWAD site, from advice on how to outsmart your opponent in a duel (or even a truel) to a cluster of your favourite mondegreens."
Chennai-based Jegan Raj Jeyaprakasam who came upon AWAD by accident ("I happened to peep into the mailbox of a senior colleague!") has been subscriber for two years. "After many attempts to build my vocabulary through books, this seemed an effortless way to achieve it," says this software engineer. Though it does not directly help him in his professional work, the confidence generated by superior vocabulary helps him reach out to people.
For 27-year-old Ankur Jain, who read a dictionary for enjoyment when he was bedridden for about 15 days, AWAD has been a channel to quench his thirst for knowledge. "I rely extensively on email for work and talk to a lot of potential clients. I also read a lot on the web for tech and work related news. Knowing new words helps me get ahead."
He remembers a particular email exchange when Garg had written about the 'eminence grise' ('one who wields unofficial power, often secretly, through someone else'). Jain pointed out that India too had its share but they were called 'remote controls' in politics. "The comment got published and I got a lot of mail from people from all over the world... some berating me for criticizing the system and some who wanted to make friends with me since I was from an exotic country!"
Among Gupta's favourites are the words holophrastic ('expressing complex ideas in a single word') and strepitant ('noisy, boisterous'). "The first word I received was acrostic, which is a 'composition, usually a poem, in which the first letter of each line spells out a hidden word or message'," remembers Gupta.
"'Maudlin' is one of my favorites as it helps me to cover my tears with a fancy word and I will never forget 'pyrrhic victory' as it helped me win a vocabulary game in Reader's Digest site. Also 'Stockholm Syndrome' for the story behind it," shares Jegan.
Garg himself is not partial to any word, "All are my favourite and they all have fascinating stories to tell. But going by reader response, I'd say 'mondegreen' is a word that is always a hit."
Coined by American author Sylvia Wright, it is 'a word or phrase resulting from mishearing a word or phrase'. The most frightening mondegreen, writes Garg, is this statistic given by a nutritionist on Good Morning America: "The average American will gain 47 pounds during the holidays". The actual prediction was '4 to 7 pounds'!
The power and magic of words knows no boundaries. From accountants to zookeepers, you will find all kinds of professions represented among Garg's half a million subscribers. He receives anywhere between 200-300 emails a day, and there are times when a word strikes a chord (like mondegreen!) or a topic that touches people (like poetry) when he gets flooded with email.
Here's a sample from some of his subscribers:
- I think you should carry a notice that it is bound to be addictive
- I like a quick burst of mental stimulation first thing when I start my computer
- AWAD epitomizes what the Internet can do for this world!
Garg's words have also found their way into schools and universities, where instructors have made AWAD a required sign-up for their classes, and many home-schoolers use it to enrich their vocabulary. Some office workers post AWAD on their bulletin board. IBM, Wipro, Infosys are among the top ten corporate subscribers while University of Michigan and Harvard University top the institutions list. His statistics page also gives a break-up of country-wise subscribers with 4342 subscribers currently from India.
Among other reference sources, Garg also uses the Internet to research for words, including the Oxford English Dictionary. Unlike many who feel that the Net has corrupted the English vocubulary, Garg feels that language that does not change or grow becomes defunct. "To us it may appear as if the Net is corrupting language, but Net users are simply using the language to fulfill their need of communication."
What started as one email, has grown over eight years into a full-time effort that also includes an Anagram Server, a Wordserver and Listat. Until recently, Garg worked with the AT&T Labs as a consultant. Now based in Seattle with his wife, Stuti (who is also the co-author of the book) and his daughter Ananya, Garg devotes all his time to writing and running AWAD. He seems to have also fine-tuned the art of saving time to keep up this incredible effort. "For example, I don't watch TV," reveals Garg.
Jain, who has been receiving Garg's chosen words for over two years, says that words can be also good ice-breakers and lead to lasting friendships. His personal recommendation: "I have tried subscribing to other word-a-day mail lists, but they are not as good as this one!"