Limericks, Pangrams & the Dazzling Ascent of Wordsmith.org

Anu Garg. Do you know that name? People in 171 countries do because they receive what the New York Times called “the most welcome, most enduring piece of daily mail in cyberspace.” I’m one of them.

Eleven years ago on January 8th, 2008 I heard Garg (Indian-born and raised) at Village Books. Enchanted with his deep knowledge of words and their history, I subscribed to Word.A.Day (A.W.A.D), and I bought The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: the hidden lives and strange origins of common and not so common words. The title was a mouthful, but then as now, I’m fascinated by the words he chooses, defines, and writes about.  

Garg founded Wordsmith.org, the vehicle for A.Word.A.Day exactly 25 years ago today: March 14th, 1994. He sent out his first word, zephyr––he liked the exotic sound of it and the meaning, “a breeze from the west”––when he was a graduate student in computer science at Case Western University in Cleveland. By 2002, his success allowed him to quit his corporate job at AT&T. Since Wordsmith’s inception, Garg has sent out 3.6 billion emails and featured 5,626 words. Here’s a recent favorite of mine: throttlebottom

Meaning: noun: A purposeless incompetent in public office.
Etymology: After Alexander Throttlebottom, a vice-presidential character in Of Thee I Sing, a 1931 musical comedy. Earliest documented use: 1932
Usage: [Lyndon B. Johnson] wanted to be Vice President, both to position himself as JFK’s successor someday and because he believed that he could convert any job––even Throttlebottom’s–– into a power base.” (James MacGregor Burns, The Crosswinds of Freedom, Knopf, 1989)

Will I use throttlebottom in conversation? Probably not. Still, I like knowing that it’s available to apply to a recalcitrant legislator. Likewise, scapegut, cernuous, mordibezza, and clutchfist. Not all curious, obscure words are meant for more than an appreciative smile. Some go straight to my brain’s wastepaper basket. As a writer I might find a fun application for palilogy (the repetition of words especially for emphasis) at my critique group and once, I used alazon (a person characterized by arrogance, braggadocio, lack of self-awareness, etc.) in Words with Friends, wedging the Z onto a triple square.

To celebrate its anniversary, Wordsmith.org has announced limerick, anagram, pangram and coin-a-word contests. You know what limericks are. Anagrams are words that use the same letters, like debit car/bad credit or dormitory/dirty room. A pangram uses all the letters in the alphabet as in “Intoxicated Queen Elizabeth vows Mickey Jagger is perfection.”  Garg’s coined  word, linguaphile (a lover of words) made it into the American Heritage Dictionary.

Wordsmith has assembled an impressive list of judges to judge the contests Garg is offering: big names in the word biz like Will Shortz, New York Times puzzle editor, Kory Stamper, author of Word by Word, and Richard Lederer, author of the humorous classic, Anguished English. Prizes include books, dictionaries, and a tour of the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary in the UK. I had to still my heart over that last prize. I like to read anagrams, limericks, and pangrams; I don’t like to write them. Maybe I could coin a word: how ‘bout Gargfan?

Wait. Maybe I should check the OED to see if it is already a word. Results: ‘‘No dictionary entries found for Gargfan. Did you mean arghan, gangman, marfan, or sarafan.’’ Nope. Garg, no gangster he, bears no resemblance to the fiber of a South American plant, a heritable disorder of connective tissues, or a long mantel that is part of the national dress of Russian peasant women.

Gargfan: what do you think? I’m a fan. Anyone else?

P.S. For more about how Anu Garg uses his created vocation as balm for his mom, see https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/…/solver-crosswords-child-becomes-parent.html

 

 

 

 

A is for Anu

Anu Garg, that is.

You haven’t heard of him? Well, there are a quarter million word lovers in 200 countries who subscribe to his  A-Word-A-Day column (AWAD) which The New York Times calls “the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass mail in cyberspace.”

I signed right up after I heard him speak about The Dord, The Diglot, and An Avocado or Two: the Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-so-Common Words (2007) at my local independent bookstore, Village Books in Bellingham, Washington.

Here’s the entry on “avocado” which should give you a tasty sample of his style:

The word originated in the Aztec language Nahuatl, where it was called ahuacatl, meaning “testicle” because of its shape. When Spanish conquerors invaded South America, they pronounced the name of the fruit as aguacate. The name also morphed into avocado, influenced by the now obsolete Spanish avocado, meaning “lawyer” or “advocate.”

Garg addresses seventeen other words starting with “A.” Some are unusual like “accismus” and “Anagnorisis” and some are ordinary like “antibody” and “admiral.” There’s always something to learn. An “Annie Oakley,” for example, is a free pass to an event. To find out why, I guess you’ll have to read The Dord, The Diglot, etc, but I can’t resist relaying what a “diglot” is: somebody who speaks two languages. Like Garg, for example.

English is Garg’s second language. He comes from Uttar Pradesh (literally “Northern State”), the most populous state in India. While he was a computer science student at Case Western University in Cleveland, he became interested in words, wondering about their origins and development, so in 1994 he started A-Word-A-Day––AWAD as he refers to it.

Even though almost ten years have elapsed since I heard Garg speak, I remember this statement, “I don’t pick words. They raise their hands and say ‘Pick me.’ In the introduction to The Dord,D he writes, “Each word has a biography. It tells us about its parents, where it was born which corners of the world it traveled, and what twists and turns it took to reach where it is today. That biography of a word––the story behind it––is called etymology (from Greek etymos: true)

Here’s what’s true for me: I love Anu Garg’s daily dispatches and I love studying words. That interest explains why my wife gave me a subscription to the online Oxford English Dictionary this year and why we have a collection of books on words. So, my 2017 A-Z Blog Challenge will derive material from those sources. I hope you’ll enjoy references to Foyle’s Philavery, The Superior Person’s Book of Words, The Word Museum, and others.

Meanwhile, Anu Garg’s half century birthday is coming up on April 5th. Why not sign up for his column, buy, or check out from the library, one of his books (The Dord…, A-Word-A-Day: A Romp Through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in the English Language or Another Word-A-Day) . P.S. He’s also written the foreword to Limericks in the Time of Trump.

What better thanks could there be for an individual who has brought such positive attention to the English language?