Word Hungry: Interview with Anu Garg of wordsmith.org

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.>Image

Suneetha Balakrishnan (SB):  How long have you been in the U.S.?
Anu Garg (AG): We are based in Seattle. I’m the founder of Wordsmith.org where I continue our mission of spreading the magic of words. We’ve lived in the US for 20 years.
SB: What is your educational background and what careers have you had so far?

AG: I have a master’s in computer science. I worked in several corporations for many years. I enjoyed it, but eventually the love of words overpowered and I left corporate life to work full-time on spreading the joy of words.

SB: How did your affair with words start? Is there a single incident which you can recount as which pushed you to this penchant?
AG: There’s no single incident. 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?
SB: Was that before marriage or after? 🙂

AG: Before.

SB:  How does your wife come into this word pic?

AG: Stuti is the voice behind words. She records words in her mellifluous voice so that people can listen to accurate pronunciation of words.

SB: How many subscribers do you have for a word a day rt now? How many countries are they from?

AG: Wordsmith.org is a community of more than a quarter million subscribers in about 170 countries.
SB: What other free internet services do you run other than AWAD?

AG: The daily newsletter A.Word.A.Day is the most popular. Besides that we have 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, forum to discuss words and languages, and a few
other services.

SB: Which is the most valued compliment you have received for your AWAD initiative?
AG: 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. These stories show how words touch everyone, no matter what we do or where we live. I feel fortunate to be able to share the joy of words with people around the world. One note I received that I can never forget was from a disabled reader who said: “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 ’80’s. 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.
SB: What is your method for choosing a word? Tell us about the very first AWAD entry and how it was received, how many people were subscribed to AWAD on that day?
AG: Well, I like to think words choose me. 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, words having all five vowels, once and only once, and in order. Facetious http://wordsmith.org/words/facetious.html is an example, but there are many more).

I organize words into themes. One week I might feature eponyms, words that are derived from people’s names (for example, shrapnel, after a British army officer). Another time I might feature words borrowed from a language, such as Sanskrit (e.g. nirvana). Possibilities are endless.

SB: How long has it been now since you started to dabble with AWAD and its peripheral activities?

AG: In March this year we’ll complete our 19 years.

SB: Tell us more about your other ‘wordy’ activities? Voluntary or Otherwise…

AG: I speak on topics related to words and languages in various venues. I also appear in radio and TV programs to discuss issues related to language. I’ve written articles and columns for various magazines.

SB: Any honours that have come to you through the alphabet? Tell us more on that aspect

AG: I believe it’s my greatest honor to share my love of words with people and touch them through words.
SB: What is your subscriber profile? ( I am one 🙂

AG: Well, words are something that everyone can relate to. Our subscribers include people from all walks of life, from accountants to zookeepers. In general, these are people who share a joy of words. Words are like air, we can’t see them, but they are just as essential.

SB: How do you think AWAD can be best used? Which subscriber profile does it suit best?
AG: My approach 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 A.Word.A.Day. There are also writers, editors, engineers, professors, and others.

 SB: Any expansion/diversification plans?

AG: There are so many words in the English language that it would take several lifetimes to cover them all though. So many words, so little time. I hope to continue to write about words, talk about them, publish books, articles, and so on for a long time.

SB: Your books? the reception to it on Amazon is said to be fantastic… tell us about it and how it happened. 

AG: People had been enjoying words in A.Word.A.Day for a long time. Then when my first book came out, people were delighted. Now here was something they could hold in their hands, give to a friend or a family member. While computers are useful, there’s no substitute to having a book in your hands as you lie down to relax. The book went on to be #1 on Amazon.

SB: What else would you like to tell us? 

AG: Some people believe they don’t care for words beyond what they already know. They think everyday words are good enough. They are afraid if they use an unusual word in their conversation or writing, others may not understand them. I think 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.

The way I see it, words are like colors on a palette. You don’t have to use all those colors in a painting, but it helps to be able to find just the right shade when you need it. Words work the same way. The right words helps us to portray our thoughts and ideas just as we have
them in our mind. We don’t want to use an unusual word just for the sake of using it,
but if it fits, why not use it?


An edited version of this interview appeared in a feature form on the Sunday magazine of The Hindu dated 23 March, 2013.  


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