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The Rediff Special/Shruti L Mathur

November 05, 2003

What is a word's worth? -- An encounter with Anu Garg
What is a word's worth? -- An encounter with Anu Garg

A self-described 'wordsmith', Anu Garg did not learn English until he was in the sixth standard.

Now Garg, a native Hindi speaker, speaks, writes, and reads about the language for a living.

Garg is the founder of, which is most popularly known for its A Word A Day (AWAD) listserv.

AWAD boasts of 570,000 subscribers in more than 200 countries around the world (equivalent to the population of Washington, DC, or Fort Worth, Texas).

Garg started the list in 1994 to share his love of and fascination for words. Word-of-mouth quickly spread the daily email, which gives the pronunciation, definition, and origin of a word along with a quote from persons as diverse as Mahatma Gandhi to Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby).

You would expect a man whose career is language to litter the conversation with words found only on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but the articulate Garg speaks simply. "I consider myself a lifelong student of English," said Garg. "Every person I meet, I learn something new."

Besides learning and teaching new words, Garg adds new words to English. While linguaphile (one who loves words and languages) still shows up red in the spell check on the computer, the word has made it into the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary in 2000.

Growing up in a nomadic family, with his father's job transferring him all over India, resulted in Garg learning in village schools where "school is in the shade of a mango tree and a blackboard is a piece of wood".

He did not see his first library until college and then he was astounded by the amount of books he could borrow. Now, his home has stacks of books all over the places. "You have to step carefully so you don't step on books," he said.

Garg studied computer science at Harcourt Butler Technical Institute in Kanpur and went on to do his Master's at Case Western, where he started Wordsmith.

He said growing up in India, especially as a male child, his only option was medicine or engineering. If he had had the choice, he would have gone into literature or the arts. But then, if he had not studied computer science, he probably would have still been in India.

Wordmaster: Anu Garg"If you love something, then paths open to you," said Garg. "Do what you love, and money will follow, you just have to be passionate."

While Garg envies the facilities and choices his six-year-old daughter Ananya has at school, he said she is missing out on the simple pleasures of life. "I used to play under trees, pluck mangoes from above, and doors were always open," he said. "My daughter is missing the freedom of playing on a riverbank."

But at least she can check out Harry Potter from the library. Garg said access to public libraries is better in America, citing how a local library in Seattle, Washington, bought 900 copies of every Harry Potter book so that no one would have to wait to read a copy.

While Garg helps more than half a million people learn English, one word at a time, he hopes to spread his love of the language, one book at a time. After receiving an email from a woman in South Africa who wanted to buy his book but could not afford the price, Garg contacted a foundation to get a copy of his book to any library in the world that wants it.

The Harnisch Family Foundation in Nashville, Tennessee, has committed to send a copy a day, and has been doing so for six months.

There is also an Indian version of the book, which is the same except for the price of Rs 150 compared to $15 (approximately Rs 690).

Garg runs his word empire out of Seattle. He and his wife chose to move to Seattle because it is a very literary city and is the top in number of books bought, he said. He visits India every two to three years.

"Sometimes I feel as if my one foot is in India and the other in Seattle," he said, smiling.

Garg used to work for AT&T Labs in Columbus, Ohio, until he was laid off last December. Instead of searching for a new job in information technology, he decided to pursue his love of words.

He now has a full-time writing and speaking schedule and is currently on a speaking tour of Asia. He spoke in Hong Kong and Thailand and will present at two venues in Mumbai and one in Delhi before going home to speaking engagements in the Pacific Northwest.

During the question and answer sessions after his speeches, Garg is most often asked what his favourite word is. Garg does not have a favourite. "I find that you look at the most ordinary word and you find fascinating details," he said. Like how many words in the English language are derived from Hindi and Sanskrit, including jungle, punch, chintz, khaki and shampoo.

"The English language is really an amalgam of words from many languages," said Garg. "I always say if you speak English, you know words from a hundred different languages."

His stand is that if a word fills a need, why not make it part of the language? Something his daughter does when playing Scrabble.

"She makes up words," said Garg, who always loses to his daughter, "and when I tell her it's not a word, she just says well, I made it up. That's what's great about the English language."

His wife Stuti also shares Garg's love of English. Besides co-authoring the book with her husband, she runs a consultancy, Namix, which comes up with names for new companies.

Garg is looking forward to his speaking engagements and meeting people in India. But for now, he is happy to just go shopping and visit the Taj Mahal with his family.

He doesn't mind returning to work after his five-week tour of India. "Because I love it so much, it doesn't feel like work," he said.

Garg will speak at the Crossword Bookstore, 1st Floor, Mahalaxmi Chambers, 22, Bhulabhai Desai Road, Mahalaxmi, Mumbai, on Saturday, November 8, 2003, 1700 IST

Photograph: Jewella Miranda | Image: Rahil Shaikh

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