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Monday, June 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Information highway can take you to language-lovers' lane

Seattle Times staff reporter

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If not for the deipnosophist in him, Andrew Meikle of Woodinville might never have been turned on to A Word A Day.

"Someone at work came across a word they thought described me," recalls the Microsoft test manager. "I thought it was so good that I pinned it up on my wall and started getting the mail."

A word, along with its definition and origin, arrives daily in Meikle's e-mail box courtesy of an electronic mailing list called, appropriately, A Word A Day (www.wordsmith.org). In seven years, about 2,500 words have been sent to more than 400,000 linguaphiles in 195 countries. (There are about a half-million words in the English language, so you do the math - and we won't have to.) Several thousand subscribers live in the Seattle area, a higher concentration than most other U.S. cities - not surprising for a town that prides itself on being literary.

And in case you're wondering, a deipnosophist is someone who is a good dinner conversationalist. According to AWAD, it comes from one of an ancient sect of philosophers who cultivated learned discussion at meals.

This deipnosophist has been chewing on a new word a day for almost three years now.

"I think for the most part I get away with a vocabulary of about 1,000 words," Meikle says. "To be reminded of the richness of language every day like that, well, it's a nice way of starting the day."

For as long as language has existed, people have had a love affair with words.

"I think people have an endless fascination with language because we all use it, and all of us are, to one degree or another, certain or uncertain about how we should use it," says Wendalyn Nichols, editorial director for Random House Reference.

Haven for language lovers

But is it truly an endless fascination? Or has our respect for language been flattened by a speeding Internet train? Think about it: Who hasn't dashed off an e-mail message using shortcuts like "LOL" and by doing away with capital letters, punctuation or correct grammar? Shakespeare must be spinning in his grave.

Not necessarily, says Malcolm Parks, professor of speech communication and Internet researcher at the University of Washington.

"Language has always had multiple layers," Parks says. "Even in Shakespeare's day there was informal and formal speech. The Internet has just encouraged all kinds of informal speech."

Adds Nichols, "Language itself is as easy to nail as Jell-O. It changes all the time."

She's right. Take, for instance, the influence that technology has had on our vernacular. Ten years ago, words like "Web site," "V-chip," "intranet" and "mouse potato" (the 21st-century version of "couch potato") didn't exist. Now they're listed in the dictionary.

In fact, the Internet has become a sort of haven for language lovers. People connect online with others who share a love of words through chat rooms, bulletin boards and services like A Word A Day.

"This is one good example of what electronic communication can give you intellectually," says Deena Heg, a local subscriber to AWAD. "There are so many bright people who write in from around the world, and I benefit from that."

A comfortable resource

People are also posting questions, of the everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-language-but-were-afraid-to-ask variety, hiding behind the anonymity of the PC.

"People don't want to admit that they don't know something," Nichols says. "But they want to know if what their English teacher told them is still valid. ... Now, with Web sites, there are people to ask."

Want to learn something new every day? Jessie Summa-Kusiak of Seattle says most of the words she receives from AWAD are new to her.

"Often, it's words that I've always wondered what they meant," says Summa-Kusiak, an art director at Amazon.com who joined the AWAD electronic mailing list in 1996.

She keeps her favorites in an e-mail folder and revisits them from time to time. So far, she has about 150 words saved.

"It's a way to keep learning," she said, "when I'm out of school and in the corporate environment."

Pam Sitt can be reached at 206-464-2376 or psitt@seattletimes.com.

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