Linguaphiles Unite

Kristin Ohlson
From the September/October 2002 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Anu Garg checks his computer often for the current number of subscribers to A.Word.A.Day (AWAD), the linguistic e-mail service that he started eight years ago. The number is constantly changing—people take themselves off the list during vacations; groups of friends subscribe simultaneously—but at this very moment the number is 515,006 from 210 countries, an increase of 317 subscribers since midnight. When Garg looks at the screen minutes later, another 17 people have subscribed.

"It just shows how all of us are touched by words," Garg says. "Words are the common currency of human interaction. I have always been fascinated by them."

Garg's A Word A Day: A Romp Through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English will be published by John Wiley & Sons in October. The book, a collection of 273 unusual, obscure, and exotic words—each with its own definition, etymology, and usage example—as inspired by Garg's e-mails. When he immigrated to the U.S. from India in the early 1990s, Garg wanted to boost his English vocabulary and to get to know his fellow computer-science graduate students at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University better. So, in 1994, he devised vocabulary mini-lessons and offered to e-mail them every morning to those in his department. Within a day, students from other departments were asking him to add them to his list. Within a week, he was hearing from people across the country. Then he introduced the program to an Internet newsgroup for linguists, and the number of subscribers shot up into the thousands. Garg, a puckish, unicycle-riding 34-year-old, calls them "linguaphiles," a word he coined—and one that made it into the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary in 2000.

Now a consultant for AT&T in Seattle, Garg spends up to 30 hours each week researching words for AWAD. He has helpers, including Todd Derr, a computer scientist in Pittsburgh who maintains the server that sends out a half-million e-mails in three hours and keeps the Web site running 24 hours a day. AWAD's copyeditor is Eric Shackle, a retired journalist in Australia. Shackle discovered Garg through their shared passion for the anagram—a word or phrase formed from another by rearranging its letters. Garg has also created a program that creates anagrams, with a banner that states "Internet Anagram Server" and quickly shuffles its letters into "I, Rearrangement Servant." Despite their wordy collaboration, these men have only virtual knowledge of each other—they've never even said hello over the phone.

Every day, AWAD sends out a new word, its definition and etymology, a quote using the word, plus an unrelated quote that is either wise or hilarious or both. Garg groups words into weekly themes: words describing pieces of castles, words about teeth, words from Faulkner's short story "Mule in the Yard," words with weird pronunciations, loanwords from a variety of languages, words that have reversed their meanings, words to drop into conversation with a therapist, and many more.

Among Garg's favorite words are eponyms—words derived from the names of people—and he has used them as daily themes on a number of occasions. "These words have such history," he says with great reverence. "Every time you 'boycott' something or eat a 'sandwich' or wear a 'cardigan,' you invoke the fellow who gave us that word."

Through an AWAD bulletin board and moderated online chats, Garg involves native and nonnative English speakers from around the globe in an ongoing dialogue. The word mondegreen—word or phrase resulting from a misinterpretation of a word or phrase that has been heard—drew more than a thousand comments on the AWAD bulletin board.

To subscribe to A.Word.A.Day, visit

Kristin Ohlson is a writer who lives in Cleveland. Her memoir, Stalking the Divine, will be published by Hyperion in 2003.