What’s in a President’s Name? Ask a Wordsmith

Election fever is on the rise. (I don’t know about you, but none of my favorite TV shows quite have the same appeal these days and anytime I pick up a newspaper or hop on a website or facebook, I’m more likely to click on a election story or link than anything else.) It’s even hitting Anu Garg, the software engineer turned wordsmith and the brain behind the immensely popular (600,000 people in some 200 countries) A.Word.A.Day newsletter.

Garg is asking a simple question this week: What’s in a name (of those whom we call our presidential hopefuls)? obambulate.jpg

“The effect of the actions of a president last for years and eponyms (words coined after someone’s name) enter the language that reflect their legacy, such as Reaganomics and teddy bear (after Theodore Roosevelt),” Garg wrote earlier today in his daily newsletter. And, although the five words for this week’s A.Word.A.Day all appear to have been coined after this year’s presidential candidates (Obama, Biden, McCain, and Palin). they have been in the language even before these candidates were born.

The first word for this week: obambulate

(o-BAM-byuh-layt) MEANING:
verb tr.: To walk about.
From Latin ob- (towards, against) + ambulare (to walk). Ultimately from the Indo-European root ambhi- (around) that is also the source of ambulance, alley, preamble, and bivouac. The first print citation of the word is from 1614.
“We have often seen noble statesmen obambulating (as Dr. Johnson would say) the silent engraving-room, obviously rehearsing their orations.”
The Year’s Art; J.S. Virtue & Co.; 1917.

[In case you're wondering, the image to your right was generated using the above definition, courtesy of Wordle, a wonderfully obsessive site that generates word clouds for a chunk of text, url, or RSS feed.]

The remaining presidential words will be posted here everyday for the rest of this week. And, a Q&A with Anu Garg follows below the fold. Q. I’ve been subscribing to Wordsmith’s A.Word.A.Day for years now. You started this online community in 1994 when you were a computer science student. Tell us about its origins.
Anu Garg: I’ve always been interested in words as long as I can recall. Back in the early nineties while I was a grad student in computer science, the Web came along. I thought it would be a great place to share my love of words with others. I began a newsletter in which I explored a word every day and told my fellow graduate students about it. Soon I was getting subscription requests from other universities, then from corporations, and even from abroad. Soon I realized the universal appeal of words.AnuGarg0.jpg

Q. Words are at the heart of an election. What are your observations of the current election cycle? New words you’ve seen used. Words you’ve seen repeated. Words you wish would go away?
AG: For all the images, video, etc. that are floating around, when it comes to connecting with the voters nothing beats words. In this election if there’s one word that has stood out, it’s CHANGE. Unfortunately, this also shows that words don’t mean a thing unless backed by actions. Both the major presidential candidates claim to represent change but you have to look at their record to be able to really tell what they mean by it.

Q. How do you go about picking your words? Is it reader-driven? Based on the news?
AG: I like to say that words pick me. Well, I make a note of unusual words I come across in my reading. Sometimes readers send their suggestions. I sometimes look in the dictionaries to find words that are offbeat, interesting, such as the words in this week’s AWAD.

Q. What are your sources for definitions? You must have a favorite dictionary! And, what about the examples of use of words? I’ve always wondered where those come from.
AG: My favorite is the 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary. Other dictionaries add new words, but make room for them by removing words that are falling out of use. The OED never throws out words, so it’s a comprehensive record of the English language. As language evolves, the meanings of words change as well. The OED shows various shades of meanings of the words over time.

To research definitions I consult a number of dictionaries. Depending on the category of words I’m writing about I might refer to specialized dictionaries as well. The examples are taken from newspapers and magazine articles and from books to show words in organic use.

Q. You were something else before you were a full-time “wordsmith” (side question: is that, in fact, what you think of yourself as?). Tell us about that part of your life as a computer scientist. How did you go from that to a linguist without any formal training?
AG:In my former life I was an engineer. I worked in computer networks and software for a number of years before turning into a full-time Wordsmith. The last time I worked in a regular job was at AT&T Labs.

I consider myself a lifelong student of language. Each new language we learn helps us see words with a new pair of eyes. I soak up everything I can find that relates to words and language.

Q. Where did you grow up? Did people express surprise to see an Indian-born computer scientist getting into the business of linguistics? What do you say to them?
AG: I grew up in northern India. Growing up I led a peripatetic life. My father worked for the state government in a job that took him place to place.

Computer scientists and linguists both work with languages, though computer languages are more tractable then human languages. I enjoy programming computers but linguistics shows me something deeper. The study of language helps us witness our common humanity.

Most of our human languages, even though they may appear quite distinct, languages such as French and Hindi, or Farsi and English, they all descended from a common source, called Proto-Indo-European. The English word gravity and Sanskrit word guru (which has been borrowed into English as well) derived from the same root which means heavy. A guru is someone heavy, metaphorically speaking, one who is laden with knowledge and wisdom.

Exploring words and writing about them I hope to make people aware that ultimately we are all related.

Q. What are some features of Wordsmith.org that people may not know about?
AG: A.Word.A.Day is the most popular service but we have a whole bunch of services such as the Internet Anagram Server and Wordsmith Chat.

Q. Is the revenue generation aspect of this work via advertisements, book sales, donations? Many people often say: I have a good idea, but can it sustain itself. Can you speak to that?
AG:It’s a cliche — do what you love, money will follow — but there’s a certain truth to it. If you really enjoy doing something you’ll find doors opening everywhere. I started Wordsmith.org as a hobby, but it was something I was truly passionate about, and I gave up my career in software for the love of words. And I haven’t looked back.

Our main source of revenue is sponsors for the daily newsletter AWAD.

Q. You left your full-time job to do this and write – you have three books in print, including the most recent, “The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-So-Common Words.” What prompted that decision?
AG:I enjoyed working with computers. And I also enjoyed researching and writing about words and language. But working in a corporation and running Wordsmith.org in my “free” time I felt I had two jobs, except that I loved both. There are only so many hours in a day and eventually I had to make a decision.

Words and language won over bits and bytes.

8 thoughts on “What’s in a President’s Name? Ask a Wordsmith

  1. didn’t care for the post, but thanks for pointing me to the wordle tool. Its great, been playing with it for the past 3 hours. Haven’t really figured how/what i can use it?

  2. had been a subscriber to a “word a day” for quite sometime and indeed words & wordplaying can border on obsession just as video games. Considering Anu’s word acumen wonder whether he cracks crosswords with ease ?

  3. Thanks so much for this post, Sandhya! I signed up right away, and am totally canceling my other word subscription, which keeps sending me words I already know. This is definitely the meatiest wordy site I’ve seen. I wouldn’t say all languages are Indo-European, though.

  4. I wouldn’t say all languages are Indo-European, though.

    Wonder what prompted that comment. No, there are plenty of non Indo-European languages out there. The Dravidian group of languages including Tamil itself do not fall under the IE branch.

    Another tidbit that I have heard is that Lithuanian and Sanskrit have a lot more in common than one would think.

  5. Thanks for the post! Subscribed right away and found it a fun site…love the quotes as well!

  6. I’ve been a subscriber of AWAD for many years. Along with the daily dose of words, I find the AWAD weekly compilation of letters most illuminating. It is not uncommon to find professors, WW II veterans, scientists, designers writing letters to Mr. Garg. Amazing stuff. You can read the archive of the letters here.

    Btw, you folks do know where the word Maverick comes from, don’t you? :-)


    Samuel Augustus Maverick (July 23, 1803–September 2, 1870) was a Texas lawyer, politician, land baron and signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. From his name comes the term “Maverick”, first cited in 1867, which means independent minded. Maverick was considered independent minded by his fellow ranchers because he refused to brand his cattle. In fact, Maverick’s failure to brand his cattle had little to do with independent mindedness, but reflected his lack of interest in ranching. X’s stated reason for not branding his cattle was that he didn’t want to inflict pain on them. Other ranchers however, suspected that his true motivation was that it allowed him to collect any unbranded cattle and claim them as his own.