NaNoWriMo Inspiration: Wordnik Words of the Day

Stretch those typing muscles and get out your word counters because it’s that time of year again. That’s right: NaNoWriMo.

In case you didn’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November participants from around the world strive to write at least 50,000 words of a novel (or any book-length work) in 30 days, which by our calculations is about 1,667 words a day. Not a word count to sneeze at.

Wordnik is here to help. Every day for the month of November, we’ll be selecting words of the day from classic novels (such as Villette and Jane Eyre) to spark your imaginations. Not only that, if you use a word of the day in your novel and tweet the sentence to us, you might get selected to appear in our weekly roundup, in which you case you’ll also get stickers!


(For those in the know, think WotD Perfect Tweet Challenge, only NaNoWriMo-ier.)

How might you keep up with all the WotDs? You can follow us on Twitter (which you’ll want to do anyway for all things word-nerdy), like us on Facebook, and subscribe to the Words of the Day by email.

Keep your eye out for the first official NaNoWriMo WotD on November 1. Good luck!

Ode.La: Making Writing Fun Again


A great thing about a place like Reverb is that it’s bursting with talent. Besides the terrific work done for the company, people show their chops through their passions outside of work, whether it’s music, photography, building bicycles, racing motorcycles, or writing books.

Ayush Gupta is a freelance developer who has been consulting with Wordnik and Reverb for almost three years. He’s a full stack engineer who works on everything from data and deployment to building user interfaces. In his spare time, he enjoys creating consumer-centric Internet apps.

Today we spoke with Ayush about one of his projects,, a site dedicated to writing and having fun with words, something right up Wordnik’s alley.

What is and who is it for? is an online community for anyone who likes creative writing, the way SoundCloud is music lovers. Our focus is on keeping things playful, away from the stress of getting published. is like a playground or gym – a place to workout your creative writing muscle.

What inspired you to start

In the writing world there exists a fixation on getting published which is unhealthy and a terrible killjoy to the love for creative writing. We wanted to create a stress-free environment where people can just enjoy the art of writing with others who respect and love it too.

At we won’t get you published, but we’ll sure help you have fun writing. Whether it’s about a train ride back home with your five-year old daughter, urban angst, mosquitoes, or a road trip. At there are a lot of fun things to do around writing. You can post challenges or writing prompts for others, or play writing games where you take turns adding to a story. There’s a writing app that helps you find your inner voices.

Did your work with Wordnik influence you?

Absolutely! I’ve always loved writing and words but it was at Wordnik that I got an opportunity to apply computing to language and words. Working with the awesome computational linguists at Wordnik and Reverb helped me learn so much about a field of work that I’d paid little attention to earlier. I started toying around with topic modeling and some other text algorithms. That eventually resulted the first version of

How did you come up with the name?

I wanted something short which evokes writing and has a lyrical ring to it. After torturing myself contemplating some really terrible names (!), I bolted out of bed late one night, punched in, saw it was available, and bought it. The rest is history.

What are some challenges that you faced while creating your product?

We knew that online communities which focus on specific interests (SoundCloud, Flickr, Vimeo, Ravelry) do well. But we had no idea how such a community would look for writing. The biggest challenge was creating an experience around writing that was playful. While we’ve been successful with that, we’re organically funded at the moment, so the biggest challenge we’re facing right now is how to scale our community when we don’t have a lot of money to spend.

What have you learned?

The world of writing and writers was new to us and there have been some interesting lessons along the way. All artistic pursuit reveals something about its creator – this is perhaps truer of creative writing than other abstracts art forms. When pursuit of writing is treated seriously, it leads to a “stiff collar syndrome” and people are hesitant to share. Also, writing is often a solitary activity but once it’s done, people want to connect with others through that written piece.

We’ve applied those learnings at and through our online experience lowered the threshold to create, share, and engage with others around writing.

What’s the feedback been like? Anything surprising?

It has been amazing. We regularly hear things like, “Wow! Wordplays are great, they seem like a kind of literary chess.” People appreciate the little features like “the little scramble of words that shows up on your profile screen from the words you wrote.” In interviews we’ve heard repeatedly that writing is therapeutic and users feel drawn to when they feel like engaging with creative writing.

What advice would you give someone interested in creating their own product?

Find a need that people have and dig in deep. Explore the labyrinth of the need you’re addressing but don’t get lost. Keep a wider perspective but stay anchored to short term goals.

It helps to address a need you can relate to so you’re building a product you’d like to use yourself. Don’t risk burnout by doing too much; do less but do often. Don’t over-optimize or over-engineer.

Be ready to reinvent. Don’t get emotionally attached to specific things. If something stinks it’s probably rotting – don’t spray air freshener on it. Cut it out and throw it away.

Dream but don’t fool yourself. Never drink your own Kool-Aid. Focus on what’s interesting for your users, not what’s interesting for you to build.

Most of all have fun doing it. It takes a lot of effort to create something from scratch. If you’re not having fun, it won’t go anywhere.

[Photo: CC BY-ND 2.0 by Silvia Viñuales]

Letters and Notes

Letters from my grandfather to his parents

Photo by cynthiacloskey

It’s National Letter Writing Week! Instead of sending that email, direct message, or text, why not set pen to paper, slap a stamp on an envelope, and drop your letter in the mail?

The word letter, meaning “a written or printed communication directed to a person or organization,” comes from the Greek diphtherā, “hide, leather, writing surface.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Latin plural litteræ meaning “epistle, written documents, literature,” was first attested in the early 13th century, replacing the Old English ærendgewrit, “errand-writing.”

If you’re the formal type, you might want to write an epistle, a letter “used particularly in dignified discourse or in speaking of ancient writings,” and also “one of the letters included as a book in the New Testament” and “any kind of harangue or discourse.” Epistle comes from the Greek epistellein, “to send a message,” which also ultimately give us epistolary, “pertaining to letters or the writing of letters.”

Another kind of formal letter is the brevet, “a letter of authority; a commission,” or “a commission to an officer which promotes him to a higher rank.” The word comes from the Old French brievet, “letter, note, piece of paper; papal indulgence,” which is a diminutive of bref, “letter, note.”

Want to be short and sweet? Write a chit, “a short letter or note; a written message or memorandum; a certificate given to a servant; a pass, or the like.” Chit comes from the Hindi word chitthi, “letter, note.” A billet is “a small paper or note in writing; a short letter or document,” and in French means “document or note” (coming from the Middle Latin bulla, “decree, seal, sealed document”).

In love? Send your paramour a billet-doux, a short love note, which translates from the French as “sweet note.” Have a crush? Send a mash note. According to World Wide Words, mash was “a slang term in the US in the 1870s for an infatuation or crush,” and “could also be a dandy or the object of one’s affection,” or “to make amorous advances to a member of the opposite sex, to flirt or seduce.” The mash note is an extension of this idea and “refers mainly to an expression of attraction or desire from a stranger or acquaintance that is unlikely to be welcome.”

If you need to break up with someone, send a Dear John letter. The ever-trusty World Wide Words tells us that the expression seems “to have been invented by Americans during the Second World War” when “thousands of US servicemen were stationed overseas for long periods,” many finding “that absence didn’t make the heart grow fonder.” Additionally, “John was a common generic name for a man at this period.”

To your object of hatred you might send a poison-pen letter, a kind of anonymous hate mail. The phrase poison-pen letter was popularized in 1913 “by a notorious criminal case in Pennsylvania,” but the term “may date back to 1908.” (By the way, blackmail, “extortion in any mode by means of intimidation,” has nothing to do with letters or the post office. The -mail portion of the word comes from the Middle English male, “rent, tribute,” which comes from the Old English mal, “lawsuit, terms, bargaining, agreement.”)

To thank someone “who has recently provided you with hospitality, usually dinner or an overnight visit,” you might write a bread-and-butter letter, with bread and butter referring “to hospitality in general.” To beg someone for money, you might write, or screeve, a begging letter, known as phishing if done by email. Charles Dickens wrote about the begging-letter writer here.

A green-ink letter, chiefly a British English term, comes from someone “who claims that he is the victim of some injustice, or who composes long and vehement complaints against a person or an organisation.” A collective of such people is referred to as the green-ink brigade. Why green? The origin is disputed. World Wide Words says it may be attested to the late 1990s and the belief by British journalists that people who were particularly eccentric preferred green ink.

A much earlier mention occurs in American astronomer Carl Sagan’s 1973 book, The Cosmic Connection: “There came in the post an eighty-five-page handwritten letter, written in green ball-point ink, from a gentleman in a mental hospital in Ottawa.” A recent mention occurred on an episode of the television show, Homeland. Carrie, a brilliant CIA agent who suffers from mental illness, searches madly for a green pen during a breakdown. “The only thing important now is the green pen,” she says.

A drop letter is “a letter that is mailed and delivered from the same post office,” while a dead letter is “an unclaimed or undelivered letter that after a period of time is destroyed or returned to the sender by the postal service,” or specifically the dead letter office.

For some letter writing advice, you might like Appleton’s Complete Letter Writer: The Useful Letter Writer, or The Complete Letter Writer. For letter writing etiquette, check out Emily Post’s advice on the proper way to write notes and shorter letters and longer letters. Some “letters that no one cares to read” include Letters of Calamity; Letters of Petty Misfortunes; and the Letter of the Capital “I,” “a pompous effusion which strives through pretentiousness to impress its reader with its writer’s wealth, position, ability, or whatever possession or attribute is thought to be rated most highly.” Finally, for inspiration, visit one of our favorite websites, Letters of Note.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by cynthiacloskey]

Happy Hangul Day!


Hangul by Andrew 鐘, on Flickr

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Andrew 鐘]

This Sunday, October 9, is Hangul Day, the yearly commemoration of “the invention and proclamation of [the] native alphabet of the Korean language.”

Prior to the establishment of Hangul (which translates as “great writing”) in 1446 by King Sejong the Great, according to this Language Log post:

the Korean language was rarely written at all. The written language used in Korea was Classical Chinese. The combination of the use of a foreign language with the large amount of memorization required to learn thousands of Chinese characters meant that only a small elite were literate, overwhelmingly men from aristocratic families. The great majority of people were illiterate.

Written Chinese (or hanzi) is semanto-phonetic, says Omniglot, an excellent source on writing systems, and uses pictograms, logograms, and ideograms. Other examples of semanto-phonetic writing systems are ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mayan.

Detail of heiroglyphics

Detail of heiroglyphics by dustinpsmith, on Flickr

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by dustinpsmith]

Hangul, however, is alphabetic, using each letter to represent a consonant or vowel. Other alphabetic writing systems are Latin, Roman, and Cyrillic, “which have been adapted to write numerous languages,” including modern English, and futhork, “the Old English runic alphabet.” Runes are letters or characters “used by the peoples of northern Europe from an early period to the eleventh century. . .believed to be derived from a Greek source.” Greek is the first alphabetic system to use vowels.

Cyrillic McDonalds

Cyrillic McDonalds by david.orban, on Flickr

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by david.orban]

Ogham is an alphabetic writing system made up “of 20 letters used by the ancient Irish and some other Celts in the British islands.” Tifinagh is “an alphabetic script used by some Berber peoples, notably the Tuareg,” and is “thought to have derived from ancient Berber script.” Avestan is “the script in which the ancient Persian language of the Avesta is written,” while Glagolitic is “the oldest known Slavonic alphabet, designed around 862–863 CE by Saint Cyril in order to translate the Bible and other texts into Old Church Slavonic.”


DSCF0041 by VicWJ, on Flickr

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by VicWJ]

More examples of ogham.

Hangul is sometimes wrongly considered a syllabary or phonetic writing system with “symbols representing sounds,” but it’s not, says Language Log, because it’s “completely analyzable at the segmental level” and “the groups into which the letters are formed do not correspond exactly to syllables.” Some syllabaries include kana, Japanese syllabic writing (literally “false name”), which is made up of two types: hiragana, “the cursive form of Japanese writing,” with hira meaning “plain, ordinary,” and katakana, an “angular kana used for writing foreign words or official documents, such as telegrams,” with kata meaning “one.” Chinese characters as used in Japanese are referred to as kanji, “Chinese characters.”

A Chinese semi-syllabary writing system is bopomofo or zhuyin fuhao:

a phonetic script used in dictionaries, children’s books, text books for people learning Chinese and in some newspapers and magazines to show the pronunciation of the characters. It is also used to show the Taiwanese pronunciation of characters and to write Taiwanese words for which no characters exist.

Zhuyin fuhao translates as “phonetic symbol,” while bopomofo are the first four letters of the system.

TC Keyboard, an example of bopomofo

TC Keyboard by sanbeiji, on Flickr

[Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 by sanbeiji]

More examples of bopomofo.

Nüshu, which translates from Chinese as “women’s writing,” is “a syllabic script created and used exclusively by women in Jiangyong Prefecture, Hunan Province, China.” Omniglot goes on:

The women were forbidden formal education for many centuries and developed the Nüshu script in order to communicate with one another. They embroidered the script into cloth and wrote it in books and on paper fans.

Nüshu may have regained popularity recently due to the novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Abugidas or syllabic alphabets “consist of symbols for consonants and vowels,” with consonants each having “an inherent vowel which can be changed to another vowel or muted by means of diacritics.” In addition, “vowels can also be written with separate letters when they occur at the beginning of a word or on their own.” Abugidas include Devanagari, “used to write several Indian languages, mainly Sanskrit and Hindi,” and which was descended from the ancient brahmi; Gurmukhi, “designed for writing the Punjabi language”; and Ge’ez or Ethiopic, used to write several Ethiopian languages.

R0018642, example of Devanagari

R0018642 by nozomiiqel, on Flickr

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by nozomiiqel]

More examples of Devanagari.

Abjads or consonant alphabets “represent consonants only, or consonants plus some vowels.” Abjads still in use are Arabic and Hebrew. Extinct abjads include Aramaic, Phoenician, and Samaritan.

Some writing systems still have yet to be deciphered, such as rongorongo, “an early glyphic writing system of Easter Island, written in reverse boustrophedon.” Boustrophedon is “a method of writing shown in early Greek inscriptions, in which the lines run alternately from right to left and from left to right, as the furrows made in plowing a field, the plow passing alternately backward and forward,” which you may remember from our post on writing.

Rongorongo tablet

Rongorongo tablet by christopherhu, on Flickr

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by christopherhu]

Alternative spelling systems are “designed to make it easier to learn how to write English.”  These include the phonetic alphabet developed by Benjamin Franklin, and Shavian, “named after George Bernard Shaw” and devised as a result of a competition “to create a new writing system for English.”

Fictional alphabets are “writing systems used in books, films and computer games.” JRR Tolkien invented several for his Lord of the Rings books, including Cirth, Sarati, and Tengwar. Atlantean is “the language supposedly spoken by the inhabitants of Atlantis,” while Klingon is “an artificial language created by Marc Okrand, first appearing in a Star Trek episode in 1967.” Other notation systems include braille and shorthand, while some language-based communication systems include Morse code and semaphore.

Language Log suggests you celebrate Hangul Day with a drink such as “makkeolli, a kind of rice wine also known as 농주 nong-ju ‘farmer’s wine.'” May we also suggest this beautiful Hagul Day bento.

hangul day bento

hangul day bento by gamene, on Flickr

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by gamene]

Happy 한글 Day!

The Three Rs: Writing

Yesterday we talked about the first R of the three: reading, readers, and books. Today we’re onto the second: [w]riting.

Nowadays many of us write by typing and texting (type comes from the Greek typos, “dent, impression, mark, figure, original form,” while text comes from the Latin texere, “to weave, fabricate”), but what about plain old writing by hand?

The word write comes from the Proto-Germanic writanan, “tear, scratch,” since before paper, writing was scratched on everything from stone to clay to wax. A synonym for write, scribe, comes from the Latin scribere, “to write.” Scribere gives us a slew of writing and describing-related words: scrivener, script, scribble, Scripture and scriptorium, “a writing-room; specifically, the room set apart in a monastery or an abbey for the writing or copying of manuscripts” (manuscript, by the way, originally mean “a book, paper, or instrument written by hand,” and contains the Latin manus, “hand”).

A postscript is a little note written or printed after the fact; superscript means “written over or above the line”; and subscript means “written beneath.” Prescriptions are scribbled by doctors before patients may obtain certain medicines. Circumscribe means to “to write or inscribe around” or “to mark out certain bounds or limits for.” Transcribe means to “to copy out in writing” from one document over to another. Sans-serif, “a printing-type without serifs, or finishing cross-lines at the ends of main strokes,” is made up of sans, French for “without,” and the English serif, which may come from the Dutch schreef, “a line, a stroke.”

Another root meaning “to write” is graphein, which is Greek in origin and gives us scads of writerly and describing words. Graphology is “the study of handwriting regarded as an expression of the character of the writer.” Chirography is “the art of writing; a particular or individual style of handwriting; the art of telling fortunes by examining the hand,” with chiro meaning “hand” in Greek. Calligraphy is the art of beautiful handwriting (calli comes from the Greek kallos, “beauty,” and is related to calliope, literally “beautiful voice”). Typography is “the art of composing types and printing from them” (during which you may make a haplography). Cacography is bad handwriting or spelling, with kakos Greek for “bad, evil,” while orthography is the act or study of correct spelling, with orthos meaning “straight, true, correct, regular” in Greek.

Perhaps you spotted some graffiti (from the Italian graffiare, “to scribble”) on your way to work today as a stenographer (the Greek stenos means “narrow”). Or perhaps you’re famous and had to stop to sign some autographs (from the Greek autographos, “written with one’s own hand”). Or better yet, maybe you’re a famous lexicographer (contains the Greek lexikon, “wordbook”) and are compiling, along with a dictionary, your autobiography or your blogography, if you’re so inclined.

If you’re practicing cryptography (the Greek kryptos means “hidden, concealed, secret”), you may want to use the ancient Greek writing system, boustrophedon, which means literally “turning like an ox while plowing,” due to the way “in which the lines run alternately from right to left and from left to right, as the furrows made in plowing a field, the plow passing alternately backward and forward.” Or perhaps you’d prefer rongorongo, “an early glyphic writing system of Easter Island, written in reverse boustrophedon and as yet undeciphered,” and Rapanuiese for “recite, declaim, chant out.” Or if you want to be understood by all, then a pasigraphy is for you.

You may know pictography (literally, “recording or describing with painting”) and definitely photography (literally, “recording or describing with light”), but how about fauxtography, “misleading presentation of images for propagandistic or otherwise ulterior purposes, involving staging, deceptive modification, and/or the addition or omission of significant context”? Or tomography, taking pictures of the inside of the body? Tomography includes the Greek tomos, “slice, section,” and is part of CAT (computerized axial tomography) scan. Then there’s topography, “the detailed description of a particular locality, as a city, town, estate, parish, or tract of land” (topos is Greek for “place”) and cartography, map-making, carta coming from the Greek khartes, “layer of papyrus.”

The ways to say writer are as myriad as ways to say write, as are writing systems, types and terms about penmanship and other scribblings, and kinds of fonts.

Tomorrow we bring you the third and last R: ‘Rithmetic. We know you’ll be counting the hours.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Kevin Gessner]

Season of the SATs

Not only is it back-to-school season, it’s the season of the SATs.

The SAT Reasoning Test attempts to measure writing, reading, and math skills, and is required by many colleges and universities. The math section includes multiple choice and open-ended questions, while the writing section includes an essay and multiple-choice questions that ask test takers to “recognize sentence errors,” “choose the best version of a piece of writing,” and “improve paragraphs.”

It’s in the critical reading section that one’s vocab mettle is tested. While the analogies portion of the test has been dropped, the questions still ask test takers to identify main and supporting ideas; understand authors’ purposes; understand the structure and function of sentences; and, our favorite, determine the meaning of words in context.

If you’re a regular Wordnik-user, you’ll know that not only do we provide definitions of words, we provide those words in context through examples from both classic and modern texts. For example, today’s word of the day, laconic, means “expressing much in few words, after the manner of the ancient Laconians; sententious; pithy; short.” Pretty clear, right? However, these examples liven it up:

Eastwood is never showy, but his laconic simplicity has never been so sly. – David Ansen, “Go Ahead, Take My Prez,” Newsweek, July 11, 1993

[The book, I Know How to Cook] been adapted by Clotilde Dusoulier of the blog Chocolate & Zucchini and an unnamed posse of experts who filled in some of Mathiot’s “laconic” instructions, reduced cooking times, and lightened up on the butter. – Mike Sula, “Books for Cooks,” Chicago Reader, December 10, 2009

To the Persian command to give up their weapons, the “laconic” reply was given by Leonidas, “Come and get them.” – George Park Fisher, Outlines of Universal History, 1853

Another way to learn the meaning of a word is to understand its etymology. Laconic comes from the Greek Lakōn, a Spartan, from the idea that Spartans are well-known for their brevity of speech.

Word lists are a great study aid as well, and we have plenty:

We’ve also tagged a whole slew of common SAT words for you.

Finally, if you want to practice using this week’s SAT-themed words of the day (whether or not you’ll actually be taking the test), participate in our Perfect Tweet WotD Challenge for your chance to appear on our blog and to win a set of Pocket Posh Word Power dictionaries.

Techical Communicators and Wordnik – Perfect Together

The Society for Technical Communication defines technical communication as:

  • Communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations.
  • Communicating by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites.
  • Providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is or even if technology is used to create or distribute that communication.

Regardless of what kind of technical communicator you might be – whether a writer of software instructions or patient instructions, a designer of websites, or a usability expert – words are important, and we were happy to learn that many technical communicators turn to Wordnik to find the right ones.

Kevin Cuddihy, Media Manager at the Society for Technical Communication (STC) had this to say:

I think many STC members have started using Wordnik since Erin McKean appeared at our Summit last year, and it’s certainly useful! Technical communicators and STC members may have an added edge in Secret Word Wednesday, given that many work with words constantly and are always looking for new ways of saying/writing things. That’s what makes Wordnik so valuable — finding not only a better way to say something, but clear examples of how a word is used.

“It’s fun to try to work out the answer to SWW from the clues,” says Karen Mulholland, a past winner of Secret Word Wednesday (SWW), “even if I’m completely baffled; and it’s more fun to see (and sometimes giggle at) other people’s guesses. Usually the result is that I learn an interesting word. And it’s an entertaining way to find other word-nerds!”

Melanie Seibert, a three-time winner of SWW, added, “I love the challenge of finding the answer before the other (super-smart) players do. It’s so hard that if you win, it feels like a great achievement. And I always learn new words!”

Technical communicators, if you have any other tips or tricks to winning Secret Word Wednesday, please share!  We’re sure other players would love to know.

You can learn more about the Society for Technical Communication at their website. You can also follow them on Twitter.