Afew years ago someone introduced me to FreeRice, an online game where they give you a word with four options; for every correct answer you give the sponsors donate 10 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Programme to fight world hunger. As you proceed, the game gets tougher—you get words such as aiglet (the options are: baby eagle, shoe string eyelet, small egg, shoe string cap) and klieg and shabrack. In the three and a half years since the website (http://freerice.com) was launched, nearly 99 billion rice grains have been donated. My family and friends played the game off and on for many days and sent links to others who enjoy words.
Every day I get a new word in my email from a website called Wordsmith.org. Some I ignore; the more intriguing ones I read and then delete. The mail contains the word’s etymology and meaning, an audio clip of its pronunciation, and its usage. I don’t read it with the intention of using it in conversation or in writing; it’s just interesting to come across words such as “hagiocracy” that I received recently. It means a government by holy persons; also a place thus governed.
Ditch the paper trail: Look up meanings of words and phrases online.
The good thing about technology is you don’t have to buy fat dictionaries or English usage books to search for the meaning of a word or to discover new words. If I recall, the last dictionary I bought, the Encarta World English Dictionary, was some 10 years ago. Today, you can download it free. Over these years I have bought a few style guides, but when I need clarity on a usage, I rarely open these books; I visit the online style guides of The Economist, The Guardian and BBC News.
As I look for a word or a phrase, I often spot another interesting word, and drift from one website to another, losing track of where I began. In the process I have also discovered—and bookmarked—some interesting word websites that I refer to when in doubt.
Also read | Shekhar Bhatia’s earlier articles
Of course, there’s the old faithful, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (www.merriam-webster.com), but there are also other specialized sites such as Word Spy, a guide to new words where I learned that “briet” is a diet that a bride uses to lose weight before her wedding day, and The Word Detective, which explains the origin of phrases (“Easy as pie”, “Hell bent for leather” and “Paint the town red”, for example) in a humorous fashion.
These websites are not as elaborate as the hardback dictionaries and phrase books and don’t have every single word from A to Z; they have a select number of more frequently used words and phrases. But by and large most of them are quite interesting to read. What distinguishes one from the other is their content as well as the style of writing.
My first two choices are both run by colleges in the US: Common Errors in English Usage by Washington State University (WSU), and Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch, professor at Rutgers University. These two, together with one of the style guides, take care of most of my needs. For example, how do you describe a position that’s diametrically opposite to another? The WSU website explains it nicely: “The expression you want is not ‘360 degrees away’ but ‘180 degrees away’ because when you turn 360 degrees you’ve completed a circle and are back where you started.”
At English.stackexchange.com, a website for “linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts”, you find answers through questions people have asked: “Why don’t we pluralize ‘foot’ in measurements?” Or, is it “‘Worse’ or ‘worst’ comes to worst?”. Incidentally, the Stack Exchange group also has an interesting website called Seasonal Advice (Cooking.stackexchange.com) for professional and amateur chefs.
For phrases, there’s The Phrase Finder (www.phrases.org.uk) where they also have an elaborate section on American phrases (”The bee’s knees” means of the highest quality) and English proverbs (“It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” means nothing is irreversible until the final act is played out). The other phrase site I stumbled upon is Quote Investigator where I learnt, to my surprise, that there is no evidence that Einstein ever said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at firstname.lastname@example.org