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Here’s to another quarter century of skelfish, toss-potting joy



Here’s to another quarter century of skelfish, toss-potting joy

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times

As numbers go, 25 feels like an oddly important one. It represents a quarter of a century, or half the shades of grey, or exactly the number of letters in the alphabet, if you don’t count q.
Italian chef Francesco Boggian holds a Guinness world record for making 25 tortelloni by hand in a mere three minutes. There doesn’t seem to be a category for the fastest eater of tortelloni, but Canadian Bob Blume is the champion when it comes to eating rice, one grain at a time, with chopsticks. Bob captured and swallowed 134 grains in three minutes. I think that means it took him roughly 33 seconds to get to 25, but I could be wrong.
Twenty-five is considered to be an important anniversary. If you make it through 25 years of marriage you’re supposed to get a silver medal, and 25th birthdays are generally greeted with much fanfare, unless you’re a giant tortoise.
The united republic of South Africa turns 25 this year. So do Justin Bieber, Dakota Fanning and Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, better known as Earl Sweatshirt.
Also born 25 years ago was Wordsmith.org, the service started by the word-loving Anu Garg on March 14 1994.
Garg, born in a remote village in India, moved to the US as a young man and became what some might call obsessed with the intricacies of English. He started mailing A Word A Day to fellow word lovers, a casual word-sharing community that mushroomed into a fellowship of logophiles who have been receiving a wealth of wildly wonderful wordage for 25 solid years.
Each week, Garg chooses a theme that links the five words he shares between Monday and Friday, and I challenge anyone to find a consistent pattern in this selection.
There have been words of every size, shape and provenance, obscure words, paradoxical words, words of every conceivable grammatical persuasion as well as tosspot words (composite words made up of a verb and its object).
The connections between these words can be clear or deliciously random, such as the recent set of “words with presidential associations” (one of these was “throttlebottom”, meaning “a purposeless incompetent in public office”).
Two recent words have been particularly pleasing. One is “skelf”, which can mean a splinter, a tiny amount or a really annoying person who is probably also thin.
The other is “omphaloskepsis”, the act of navel-contemplation or, in Garg’s words, “complacent self-indulgent introspection”.
Over the past 25 years, the Wordsmith family has matched its members with 5,626 words. It’s like a dating app with all the excitement and none of the risks – unless your supervisor has a dictionary handy when you call him a skelfish throttlebottom addicted to omphaloskepsis.
According to neuroscientists, 25 is the approximate age at which the human brain’s prefrontal cortex becomes fully developed and finally graduates from impulse-control school with a diploma in rational decision-making.
I really hope this doesn’t happen to Wordsmith.org, because the eclectic, eccentric and gloriously unpredictable words that come flying into my inbox (and into the inboxes of another 400,000 people in 171 countries) every weekday are the source of enormous joy.
Happy 25th anniversary, Wordsmith.org. Keep surprising us.

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