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.


Thirteen years ago today, I became a blogger (ugh, I know, right?). It was the last year or so of the great Age of Bloggers, now lost to history. I had just started on the tenure track at my current place, Wayne State University, and thought to myself, “Clearly a tenure-track job will give me lots of time to randomly disseminate my thoughts about the world and academia!” Well. And yet here we are, thirteen years to the day after Front matter. When my first book (Numerical Notation) came out in 2010, I decided to mention Glossographia in my author blurb – and even then I thought to myself, will anyone ever remember this blog, or even blogs in general, in fifty or eighty or a hundred years when someone (???) pulls my book off a shelf in a library (???). Maybe not. And certainly some of the material is dated. But Teaching linguistic anthropology as integrative science – a post from the very first week of the blog’s existence – still embodies much of the way I think about stuff, and I still teach some of those same articles now – in fact I think I’m teaching d’Andrade’s ‘Cultural Darwinism and language’ (2002) this week. I don’t post here as much as I could or should, not anymore, but we’re not dead yet! Happy birthday, Glossographia. You’ve seen me through one pandemic, two promotions, three books, thousands of students and colleagues both online and in the elusive “in person” I’ve heard so much about. Here’s to thirteen more.


I’m not quite sure whether a blog that has been in existence for six years can qualify as having a ‘retro’ period.  But I spit on fascist definitions of retro!  Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@schrisomalis) may see, over the next couple of months, some tweets to old Glossographia posts (at least a couple years old) that didn’t get (in my not-so-humble view) enough attention when I wrote them.   I’ll note the year in the new tweet. If you don’t follow me on Twitter / don’t care about Twitter / regard Twitter as the spawn of some ineffable entity, then you won’t notice anything.

A new look

As you will see (at least, if you view the site on the WordPress page as opposed to on an aggregator or somewhere else), I have changed the theme and layout for the site.   Hope you like it – any theme is going to have its advantages and disadvantages.   Frankly I was getting annoyed at the small text size and plainness of the old theme, which had been around since the blog’s inception in 2008.  This one has larger text and is more modern, and the main headings are larger and clearer (now at the left sidebar).    Comments and criticisms are welcome, bearing in mind that this is a free WordPress site so my options are somewhat limited.

Up and at them!

Well, here we are again at the first day of classes (for me) at Wayne State.  This year my Language and Culture undergraduate class will be following and reading my blog posts here as part of our in-class discussions, and material from here will also end up on their final take-home exam.   So we may see comments and questions here from some newcomers from my undergrad class, who have no prior background in anthropology, linguistics, or both, and any of your comments and questions may show up as discussion fodder in my classroom.  Your kindness in the spirit of pedagogy is appreciated – thanks in advance.

It’s also the first week for a lot of new graduate students, both here at Wayne State and across the country, in all sorts of fields.  So, in the interest of spreading the word, here’s a great article, ‘The Ten Commandments of Graduate School‘, that deserves a careful read not only by students, but their mentors as well.

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