The Magic of Words

By Anu Garg (GRS '95, computer science)

For as long as I can recall, I've loved reading. As time passed, I began to wonder: Where do words come from? Who made them up? Who dictated that a rectangular opening in a wall was to be called a window? Looking words up in a dictionary, I found myself more interested in their origins.

When I was growing up, there was no Wikipedia, no email, no web, no telephones. Not even electricity. Growing up in remote villages in India, I was surrounded by open farms and orchards. There were butterflies that would sit on my shoulder if I stayed still for a few seconds. There were trees where I would pluck a ripe juicy mango and eat it right under the shade.

And there were books. There were books all around me, as my father is a bibliophile.

Eventually I went to college to study computer science. In the early 90s I came to the U.S. to attend grad school at Case Western Reserve University. While I was a student there, something extraordinary came along: the web.

I figured the web would be a great place to share my love of words with my fellow students. I began what grew into Wordsmith.org, a community of people who enjoy language and words.

Now I research and share the stories behind words in a daily newsletter. Readers share their own stories as they relate to the words.

Once I received a note from a woman who worked as a literacy instructor in a prison. She decided to use words from my newsletter in her classes. In the beginning the inmates resisted. "We don't need no stinking words!" they told her.

But she persisted and soon they were all hooked. If some day she'd forget to tell them the word of the day, they'd ask her, "So, what's the word for today?" That shows the power of words. No matter where we live, what we do, we all can be enchanted with the magic of words and their stories.

This literacy instructor wrote again after a few weeks with a postscript to her story. She had told her students the word for that day, "misanthrope," and explained to them that the word meant someone who hates the whole humankind. Then she asked them if they could think of someone to whom that word would apply. Several hands went up. "Prison guards!" they said. You don't need to be a PhD in language to understand the power of words.

We grow up, but our hunger for stories remains, and the histories of words offer some of the most fascinating ones. Once you know that the word "window" comes to us from Old Norse and literally means "wind's eye" or that "lady" earlier was, literally, a "loaf kneader" and "lord" a "loaf guard," it's easy to fall in love with words. Words reveal to us the history buried beneath the patina of time.

In my newsletter I feature not everyday words, but unusual words, and sometimes people ask me why they would want to learn them. They are afraid they might come across as pretentious for using all those fancy words. The way I see it, having a large number of words with you is akin to an artist having a large palette. You don't have to use all those colors in a single painting, but it helps to be able to find just the right shade when you need it. The right word works the same way. It helps us portray our thoughts and ideas just as we have pictured them in our minds.

I've been running Wordsmith.org for 17 years, but I remain a lifelong student of language—so many more colors to explore, so many more paintings to paint.

Anu Garg (GRS '95, computer science) is the founder of wordsmith.org, an online community of more than a million subscribers in 200 countries. He is the author of three books on words and language.