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September 26, 2001 [WSJ.com]

Leisure & Arts

A Word a Day --
Say, 'Gasconade' --
Keeps Boredom at Bay


Portland, Ore.

Anu Garg, a computer engineer from northern India, is probably not often likened to Tom Sawyer. But when I received a "gift subscription" to A.Word.A.Day, Mr. Garg's listserve, I immediately thought of another audacious fellow, who managed to alter others' negative views of fence painting.

My view of listserves has been forever changed by A.Word.A.Day, a rare exception to the usual blight on my mailbox. It seems I have joined a rather large and global group, subscribers who are happily painting Mr. Garg's fence or, at any rate, resisting the usual urge to click on "unsubscribe."

When I called Mr. Garg to thank him for his gift, I learned that I am one of about half a million people in more than 200 countries who look forward each morning to learning the daily word. The word is issued each day from Mr. Garg's home in Columbus, Ohio, which he shares with his wife, his little girl, four dictionaries and a connection to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

His mass missive contains the chosen word, its etymology and meaning and a sentence from a respected publication in which it has been used. There's also an audio clip of the word's pronunciation recorded by his wife, Stuti Garg, whom he calls "the resident orthoepist." (Look it up.)

Wordsmith Anu Garg didn't begin to learn English until the sixth grade.

Each word is chosen to fit the week's theme. Past themes have been savory words, words not to put on a resume, Dickensian characters who have turned into eponyms, words about laughing and words that prompt you to say "eschew obfuscation."

This week's theme, in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, is verbs that help us express our feelings of grief and dismay. Monday's verb was assuage (to soften or relieve a burden or pain).

Mr. Garg oversees an extensive Web site (www.wordsmith.org) with numerous features for word lovers, including a dictionary, a thesaurus and anagram and acronym finders. He maintains a message board and compiles a monthly newsletter from the hundreds of e-mails he receives daily. He also hosts online chats so subscribers can query the likes of John Simpson, the OED's chief editor, and author Richard Lederer.

All this for love of the English language, which isn't even Mr. Garg's native tongue. He was raised speaking Hindi in Nainital, in northern India, and began learning English in the sixth grade. By the time he was in high school, he was reading the English dictionary for fun, still a favorite pastime.

"Browsing the OED is the idea of a perfect day for me," he said.

AWAD began in 1994 as a diversion from graduate school, when Mr. Garg was studying for a master's degree in computer science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. But subscriber numbers, originally 189, began increasing exponentially when those people passed it on to fellow students and computer geeks. Currently, the greatest number of subscribers at a single organization (760) is at IBM Corp. Next on the list is the University of Michigan (656), trailed by Harvard (623) and the University of Washington (548).

"I love to generate stats on the list," said Mr. Garg, who does all this after putting in a full day as a consultant at AT&T Labs.

For fear of alienating plain-speaking folk, Mr. Garg rarely uses the daily words in conversation. That doesn't stop a number of his subscribers from using the unusual words, often in unusual ways.

Take Drs. Daniel Ford and Christopher Papa, for example, respectively a skin biologist and a retired dermatologist who hail from New Jersey. Using either Mr. Garg's word or the daily offering of www.Merriam-Webster.com, they write logocentric limericks and post them on their site, www.netlabs.net/ hp/doxite/partnersinrhyme/.

Dr. Papa said he started it all by writing a limerick for every esoteric word he encountered in Patrick O'Brian novels. From there he jumped to writing limericks with words found in Gilbert & Sullivan operas. He enlisted Dr. Ford, with whom he sang in the Ridgewood, N.J., Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company. Now the two draw inspiration from the daily e-mailed words.

"There's evidently hundreds of thousands who get this every day, and we're the only weird ones who then take these words and write a limerick so the words make sense," said Dr. Papa. "The greater challenge, of course, is to write a limerick that's humorous and usually has intimations of being off-color."

Here's one of Dr. Papa's cleaner creations, for the word aposiopesis (a figure of speech in which the speaker breaks off suddenly, as if unwilling or unable to state what was in his or her mind):

Aposiopesis, 'tis said,
Is thought that is suddenly dead,
A face-saving feat,
Leaves words left to eat,
And sure to produce a fat-head!

The doctors have several hundred subscribers, thanks to Mr. Garg's mention of Partners in Rhyme in an AWAD newsletter. Dick Ellis, of Santee, Calif., has also benefited from AWAD publicity for his ongoing, online suburban soap opera, "doug&Sylvia." Each episode revolves around the daily word.

Mr. Ellis is still astounded by the number of readers of his diurnal tale. Of about 700 subscribers, 160 are in Japan, including a business English professor who requires his students to read the episodes at http://members.home.net/2dellis/douglas/douglas_main.html and then compose papers about them.

"He told one of his classes, 'You should read this because Mr. Ellis is my version of Hemingway,' " Mr. Ellis reported proudly.

A retired librarian, he tried to interest his daughter in A.Word.A.Day shortly after he subscribed in 1996. She indicated that the last thing she needed was another e-mail subscription. "I said, 'What if I wrap a story around it?'" recalled Mr. Ellis. His daughter never misses a vocabulary-building episode.

Mr. Ellis says his favorite word is hemidemisemiquaver (in music, a 64th note). Somehow he managed to fit it into his story, when his hero doug stopped weeding in his garden long enough to admire a hummingbird's hummed hemidemisemiquaver.

Mr. Garg, however, refuses to identify his favorite word. "It's like asking a father, 'Who is your favorite child?' Besides, it's not just the word but how it is used that packs its power."

As for me, I don't play favorites. I just keep studying a word a day, knowing that someday I'll be regarded as a polyhistor (a person with broad knowledge).

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