- December 15, 2009
In 2002 the New York Times called A.Word.A.Day (AWAD) “arguably the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace.” The email contains one word, its pronunciation and definition, and an example of how it is used in a sentence.
Each word comes as part of a weeklong theme, such as Forgotten positives (evitable, wieldy, exorable, gainly, corrigible), Words derived from Sanskrit (karma, avatar, nirvana, pundit, juggernaut), Words to describe your opponents (facinorous, ventripotent, dasypygal, saponaceous, yegg), and There is a word for it (acnestis, daymare, nihilarian, lentiginous, spurtle).
A native of the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern
The National Association of Scholars loves good words. We believe that a major part of the purpose of higher education is to transmit civilization’s legacy to the next generation; language is the nucleus of civilization. We wanted to introduce our readers to Garg and his lexical career. He graciously agreed to an interview; below are his responses to our questions.
NAS: You are a computer scientist, not a trade usually connected to dexterity with words. Where did your love of words come from? A New York Times article reports that while you were in graduate school at Case
Garg: As far as I can recall, I have always been interested in reading. For a long time I read books and magazines literally from cover to cover. When you are so much around the printed word, eventually questions arise: Where did words come from, who made them up, did they always mean the same thing, and so on.
I learned that each word has a biography, we call it etymology. Once you get to know a word, even the most plain-looking word has fascinating stories to tell. The word "windows" is "wind's eye" etymologically speaking. How much more poetic can you get? It's easy to fall in love with words.
In the early 1990s I had recently discovered the Internet. The potential of email was astounding—I’d call email the most successful app on the Internet. I realized it would be a good way to share my love of words with others.
Garg: After I completed my graduate studies, during the day I worked at my corporate job and ran Wordsmith.org in my spare time. Over the years Wordsmith.org grew so much I felt I was doing two jobs. I loved both, but there are only so many hours in a day and eventually I gave up my job for the love of words. Words won over bits and bytes.
NAS: Going out on your own must have required esperance. We picture you making your conge to your former employer and stepping into your new role as the cellarer of fine words?
Garg: It's a hard decision giving up a regular paycheck, medical insurance, and other perks for the unpredictability of being on your own. But I have found if you truly love something, people can sense it. Doors open. Paths appear (though not always paved, especially in the beginning). As Emerson said, "Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen."
Garg: I continue to enjoy writing A.Word.A.Day and running Wordsmith.org. Every morning I can't wait to wake up and begin researching words, writing about them, going through readers' comments, and learning. During the last 16 years of A.Word.A.Day, I have been able to describe about 4,000 words. Hundreds of thousands more await their turn. My work is cut out for me. I also have a few other projects in mind though.
NAS: What is the best adjective modifying “Anu Garg?” Someone in our office proposed “corky” (June 1999)
Garg: How about a noun instead? Philomath
NAS: One of the pleasures of A-Word.A.Day is your imaginative categories. “Words from the names of newspapers” (February 1999); “Words that have many unrelated meanings” (January 2007); “Lesser known antonyms of everyday words” (October 2002); “words from the works of Gwendolyn Brooks,” October 2003. What inspires these categories?
Garg: In the English language we have masculine/feminine pairs, mother/father, lady/lord, etc. and I wonder if there is a similar counterpart for a less common word, say avuncular. It turns out often there is such a word. The word is materteral meaning auntlike. I research and collect more words like this and once I have enough I write about them and feature them in A.Word.A.Day.
At another time I might feature words borrowed from another language. We all know English has many words that came from Latin, French, and German, but it has adopted words from more than a hundred different tongues. Languages as far away—geographically and linguistically—as Tongan (taboo), Tamil (pariah), and Hawaiian (aa) have contributed to it.
I make discoveries every day and can't wait to share them with the readers.
NAS: You often find short interesting words, as well as the sesquipedalian kind. What are your favorite short words? When you have climbed the mountain of words, out of what small rocks do you build your tor?
Garg: One of my favorite short words is os. What makes this two-letter word remarkable is that it has three distinct meanings, and each sense takes a different plural.
NAS: Do you use recherché words in conversation with your family and friends? Or is this something reserved for fellow linguaphiles?
Garg: Only if a word fits.
NAS: What is your all-round favorite English dictionary? Your favorite word-lovers’ book?
Garg: The Oxford English Dictionary is a gem, a lex icon. The best thing about this dictionary is that it's a comprehensive record of the English language. They only add new words, never throw one out. It's a dictionary and a wordlover's book, a Golconda of words.
NAS: The National Association of Scholars is, as its name suggests, mostly made up of people who are faculty members in colleges and universities, although we also have members who are independent scholars, and have recently opened our membership to members of the general public who are interested in the fate of scholarship in modern America. We range from emeriti to aegrotats. It’s a membership with a lot of interest in intelligent, literate expression. Do you have any words for us?
Garg: Sometimes we are afraid to use an unusual or uncommon word. The fear is that readers may not know the word. I think we have a catch-22 here. We don't use a word because readers may not be familiar with it, and readers are not familiar with it because we don't use it.
I say go ahead, use a word if it fits. What's the fear? We may make readers get up from their chairs and walk to a dictionary. All the better, as the exercise will help them battle obesity.
NAS: Some of us look on you as a kind of folk hero: a man who has found a way to make a living by enriching our vocabulary. Do you have any sense of how much you have touched the cultural life of Americans?
Garg: I am fortunate to be able to do what I love. I feel blessed to be part of a community of people who love and enjoy words and language. They learn from me and I learn from them. Emails I receive from readers are heartwarming. They share a favorite word, a word they've coined, a grammar bugaboo, a question about word origin, and recount their stories and anecdotes. They know they are writing to someone with whom their words will resonate.
NAS: Most people with big vocabularies are assiduous readers. Tell us a bit about your reading habits. A.Word.A.Day readers can pick up on some of your literary tastes and your interest in Indian writers, but sometimes it seems you must spend part of your time combing through textbooks in random subjects. Set us right.
Garg: Some of the words I feature in A.Word.A.Day are those I come across in my reading. At other times I actively go to the dictionaries to mine for words. Readers also share words.
NAS: What book(s) are you currently reading?
Garg: I'm reading Dreaming in Hindi, a book by Katherine Russell Rich. This is an account of her spending a year in
NAS: How do you typically read books? The old-fashioned way, flipping pages of a hard copy? Kindle? iPhone? Online? Audio?
Garg: Modern technologies are great, but the old-fashioned paper and ink works for me.
NAS: On your website you say that your favorite invention of all time is the printing press, because it has enabled us to read the printed word. Now that companies like Project Gutenberg and Google Books have made books available online, will the printing press become obsolete? Do words lose any of their meaning when read using digital media?
Garg: Newspapers and magazines are folding everywhere in the
Initiatives such as Google Books and Project Gutenberg are invaluable. I love them. They save me much time and effort in research, but in leisurely reading there's no substitute for a paper book. You can drop it from the bed, soak it in the bathtub, press it under the pillow, scribble all over it, and still read it without missing a word.
NAS: You’ve said, “All the life's wisdom can be found in anagrams. Anagrams never lie.” We put “National Association of Scholars” into the anagram server and got combinations like “Asocial Annotations Chairs Fools” and “Fanatical Historians Saloon Coos.” Should we be worried? Or should we put faith in “A Fantastical Social Honor Is Soon”?
Garg: Anagrams show us that words and names and titles can be more than their face value, if only we take the time. A "mother-in-law" can be "woman Hitler", for example. On the flip side, if you torture words enough they'll confess to anything.
NAS: Your approach to words is playful, but clearly language learning is also a serious part of education. The capacity to think clearly and to reason well depends to a fair degree on having command of the right words. That’s how we avoid harmful vagueness, achieve necessary precision, and find the balance between particularity and abiding principle. If you were suddenly made “Vocabulary Czar” in the
Garg: When an average person thinks of vocabulary, he imagines big, esoteric words, used by people perhaps to show off. But a large vocabulary is like an artist having a big palette of colors. We don't have to use all the colors in a single painting, but it helps to be able to find just the right shade when we need it. We shouldn't hesitate to use an unusual shade of color if it brings out a nuance in the painting. A large vocabulary works the same way. We don't have to use long, multisyllabic words all the time, but if a word fits, if it helps to portray our thoughts and convey ideas better, we shouldn't hesitate to use it.
A language is a living thing. I'd like to see school children look at language as something that's more than a set of strict grammar rules. A language is a tool, it's something to play with, and it's much more. It's something that's always on the move, constantly changing. New words are born, they grow and change. And words die too. Words are like air—they are all around us even though we can't see them, and they are just as essential.
Once students see language as something that can be fun, improving vocabulary takes care of it by itself. The best way to enrich vocabulary is organically, by coming across words in their natural habitat, taking the time to learn about them, their histories, and making lifelong friends with them.
NAS: What is your all-time favorite word?
Garg: I don't play favorites with words.
Images: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain