Adventures With a Wordserver

by Anu Garg

(appeared in IEEE Institute)

On a crisp early morning in Moscow, Vladimir Balashkov, is reading his Email at Moscow State University's computer lab. He comes across the word "zeitgeist". While computers are Balashkov's forte, English is not and he's at a loss for the meaning. Meanwhile, halfway around the world in Boston, roving journalist Roger Petka is about to file his late-night dispatch. Everything is ready except for the word "highway," which he'd like to replace with something less worn-out, but he doesn't have a thesaurus handy. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, 13-years-old Rebecca is busy researching a paper for her humanities class. She finds the acronym IBRD but doesn't know what it stands for.

Fortunately for all three, there is the wordserver.

On the cool shore of Lake Erie in the city of Cleveland, a wordserver awaits just these types of problems. It scans databases to find answers to these questions and, moments later, the three people have their answers. (zeitgeist is the general intellectual, moral, and cultural state of an era; highway synonyms: speedway, carrefour, roadway, pathway, expressway, turnpike, thoroughfare, freeway, bridle path, byroad, causeway; IBRD = International Bank for Reconstruction and Development).

Wordserver is basically what the name implies - a server of words. It is a collection of databases and scripts designed to answer dictionary, thesaurus and acronym lookup requests. The lookup requests are received by email. The story behind how the wordserver got started is like this:

Few months ago I noticed that a major portion of my reading and writing was done online -- on a terminal -- reading papers, browsing through the email, composing replies and so on. I often needed to look up words and felt the need for a dictionary. One night I wrote few scripts to look up a definition on a dictionary text. Later I thought, wouldn't it be great if other people could also use this? And a wordserver was born.

I decided to make the dictionary look-up service available by email and named it: Dictionary/by/Mail. There are dictionaries available on the Internet via telnet, gopher and web but not all people have access to these (especially those who get on the net via freenets or via commercial access providers). Besides, invoking a telnet, gopher or web client for a simple word lookup seemed like an overkill.

Prior to formally announcing it to the world, I performed a trial-run or what they call Beta Testing in the software parlance. My fellow graduate students were the obvious guinea pigs. I broadcast a mail to the graduate's mailing list in our computer science department, announcing the new dictionary service. Before long, lookup requests were pouring in. Folks found it useful and the big wide Internet was my next clientele. I announced it on on the Usenet and the wordserver was finally open to the world.

The mechanism behind Dictionary/by/Mail is quite simple. A sample lookup request to the wordserver looks like this:

Subject: define acrophobia

When this email reaches the wordserver, it scans the "Subject:" line for the keywords. In the above request, it finds the keyword "define" and knows that the sender of the message wants the definition of the word. Next it feeds the word to a script which looks into an index to find the location of the definition in the database. Finally, it extracts the definition and sends it to the return address in the mail. Fortunately, with the wonders of modern computers, whole of this process, including the transmission of mail takes only couple of seconds.

After dictionary, the thesaurus lookup was the next candidate and after few hours of hacking, Dictionary/by/Mail had a sister service: Thesaurus/by/Mail.

One day, Forrest Ritchey of, who has a keen interest in languages and words, suggested, "I wonder if it would be possible to set up an a service which would transmogrify the text of an incoming message and send it back to the sender?" The idea was appealing and an anagram generator sounded like an obvious start. And so Anagram/by/Mail was the next addition to the services from the wordserver.

Anagram service caught fancy of the users and many busied themselves finding the anagrams of their own names, their girlfriends' names or even the names of their pets. A few sent in the names of their corporations and universities to see if it could transmogrify into something interesting. Craig Smilovitz from informed me that their company's name - Analog Devices - is actually an anagram of "Naive Coed Gals." (-:

While cruising on the net, one day I stumbled into Peter Flynn of ("ie" is the country code for Ireland) who has maintained an extensive database of acronyms. Providing acronym lookup from the wordserver seemed a useful service and I added Acronym/by/Mail to the list of services from the wordserver.

Besides these look-up services, I run a mailing list called A.Word.A.Day. It sends out a vocabulary word and its definition (with occasional commentary from me) to the subscribers.

All the services from the wordserver are free and many people ask me why I am running this wordserver. Eugene Fubini, a former assistant. secretary. of defense in the mid-'60s once said, "Real compensation includes salary plus psychic income." When I get emails from the users telling me that they find these services useful, it is greater reward than any financial compensation I could have gotten. The "psychic income" more than offsets the lack of any monetary benefits.

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