The Phrontistery at 25

This week – the day is up for a little debate, but let’s celebrate it today – marks 25 years since the beginning of my longtime website on weird words, wordplay, and language, The Phrontistery. A silver anniversary, to go with the paper anniversary of my new book, Reckonings, this past December. To go with my hair, a wag might remark, fairly.

Some of you may not be aware that this is where I got my start, all those years ago, as a new graduate student full of a list of words culled from reading my old Chambers dictionary as a form of GRE prep. For a while, the Phrontistery was sort of a big deal: in the era before the big commercial dictionaries had mastered web content and search engine optimization, a big single HTML page full of words was surprisingly highly ranked. The Google algorithm is far less forgiving now. So if you only know me as an academic, and not as a very immature weird little PhD student obsessed with nerdish things, well, now you know.

It’s been a long road over the past quarter-century, and the story is told at some length over there. That story places the origins in 1996, and that is right, as far as the work of putting it together. But the site didn’t go live at its old (now long defunct) address at, until sometime in very late January or early February 1997 – hence the present celebration. As mentioned on the history page, my first email from a Geocities ‘neighbour’ (what a weird notion – these were the people whose four-digit URL was nearest to yours) was on February 2. So I know it was up by then, which is why I’m marking the date. Then, on February 4 I wrote an email to a bunch of my friends telling them about it:

I’ve been working for the past week or so on my new web site (see my signature for the URL).  It’s a work in progress, but it’s starting to get OK now.  Warning: if you decide to check it out, it is pretty weird.  Although, seeing who its author is, that shouldn’t come as any surprise.  At first, when I heard about this Geocities deal where they give you 2 megs of free drive space for your page, along with a free URL and email address, I figured that there had to be some sort of catch, such as being forced to put all kinds of advertising on your page, etc.  In fact, after talking to one of the grad students here who had a Geocities account, there’s no catch … I’m still trying to figure out how these people make any money.  But I’m not going to start complaining.

Why yes, I do still have every relevant email I’ve ever sent or received since 1995. Doesn’t everyone? *feigned look of innocence* Anyway, I was right about Geocities – no one, not when it was independent, not when Yahoo bought it – no one knew how to make money off that thing. And I’m still weird, but you probably knew that. Anyway, I was 22 years old at the time, very immature, way too clever for my own good and made lots of mistakes, most of which have thankfully been wiped clean (because things don’t really survive on the Internet forever, not really, not for 25 years at least). Other things survive on my hard drive, though, like this … thing:

The original header for the site from 1997. It burns. It burns. Now add a MIDI of Handel’s ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ on repeat. I’m sorry.

I still get a couple emails a week from the site, from people writing with weird questions about language and such. I’m sure I would get more if I put more effort into it, and if I didn’t actively discourage potential emailers. I write folks back if their questions are interesting, but not if they’re just suggesting some addition, because I’m done adding new words. The Phrontistery at its inception wasn’t even Web 1.0 – we were still in beta, back in those early days a quarter-century ago. The world of 2022 doesn’t need a homegrown ‘hard words’ dictionary anymore. In terms of new content over there, it’s really just whenever my Twitter feed updates.

I’m fully confident, though, that some of you reading this now came to me originally from an encounter at the Phrontistery, including new people who follow me on Twitter, as well as some long-time readers. And that’s pretty cool, that I’m still making connections based on this vestige of a bygone era. If that’s you – let me know! And fear not – it’s not going anywhere. Happy silver anniversary, little website turned big website turned weird legacy. It’s been a fun ride.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

2 thoughts on “The Phrontistery at 25”

  1. I found a large folder of lists I made over 10 years ago from your wonderful site. Thank you for sharing it! Although, I’m sure my family didn’t appreciate all my attempts to adimpleate my conversations with lost words.

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