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The Phrontistery began life because I needed to study for the GREs. In retrospect, it was a rather ridiculous way to do so. But in 1995, as I was starting to gear up towards graduate school, I decided that I was going to read “the” dictionary (my trusty Chambers, which still sits about three feet from where I'm sitting now), starting with A, and writing down short definitions for every word I didn't know. So every day I would spend an hour reading 10 pages or so of the dictionary, just scanning for weird words and writing down definitions. It was fun, for some value of 'fun'.
I finished reading the dictionary sometime in early 1996, by which time I had already taken the GRE and was only finishing because I'm a completist, or an obsessive-compulsive freak, or both. And then … well, I wasn't sure what to do with it, because at the time, I didn't even have a browser and was using email and Usenet through Lynx (although my roommate had a fancier computer with an early version of Netscape). So I puttered around with it some more, until by the fall of 1996, I was ensconced in graduate school and finally became aware of the miracles of the Web (cue angelic chorus) and owned a computer with a real browser. Back in those days you could still say the phrase 'Information Superhighway' without a hint of irony and be seen as trendy, and I surely wanted in on that game.
So, around that time, let's say October 1996, I became aware of this thing called Geocities, which, as those of you of my vintage may recall, really did, at the time, conceive of itself as a set of 'cities' each containing webpages on different themes. So the first URL for what was then called 'Forthright's Phrontistery' was http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/7044, with the number being like a street address in the Acropolis neighbourhood of the Athens 'city', which was supposed to house sites focusing on education, writing, and philosophy. You can see what's left of the old neighbourhood here. As for me, since I left Geocities long before its demise in 2009, you can't find the original Forthright's Phrontistery anywhere (not even on the Internet Archive), but I still have it all on my hard drive (can you say 'information hoarder'?). As I recall one of the first things you were advised to do is to check out your 'neighbours' who were numerically close to you and email them. I still have the very first Phrontistery email I ever received, on February 2, 1997, from my neighbour at 7027. I do wonder how many of those old Geocities sites have survived in some form to the present day, as the Phrontistery has. Not too many, I'd wager.
Anyway, here is the text you'd encounter upon reaching the home page:
Welcome to the Phrontistery! I'm Forthright, your host as you search this site, which is academic in appearance and focus but which, I think, has lots of stuff for anyone generally interested in historical and linguistic topics, prehistory, or social issues in general. Please check back to see the latest updates if you are interested in the English language, history, archaeology, and social theory, or if my personal interest areas appeal to you. Eventually, this page will contain a number of historical, linguistic and related resources, as well as a number of my personal essays and other written material. My eventual goal is to produce a "thinking-place" where I can share knowledge with other like-minded folks. You should shortly be hearing Handel's Air and Variations in E Major from his Harpsichord Suite No. 5, known as "The Harmonious Blacksmith" by couth and uncouth alike.
So, from this, you could conclude that even in 1996, I was rather pretentious. Alternately, you could decide that I have displayed remarkable consistency in my interests over the past 17 years and counting, since between the Phrontistery and my blog, Glossographia, the first two sentences encapsulate what I still do. The last sentence should certainly terrify you – indeed, like so many horribly-designed Geocities pages from the mid-1990s, Forthright's Phrontistery did indeed play a horrible MIDI file of harpsichord music, over and over and over, whenever you went to the home page (and refreshing the page started the music over from scratch). For those stalwart souls willing to brave the horrors, I still have the file and you can listen to it here. But seriously, don't do that. I apologize to anyone who may have visited the site and run screaming in horror at the musical atrocity … particularly if it meant you never came back. The graphics were also terrible. I mean really bad. Lots and lots of Copperplate Gothic Bold. There were pages with red text on green background, which must have been torture for the colour-blind, and … actually, just torture for everyone, only different. As far as I am aware, I never used the MARQUEE tag though. So if there is the possibility of salvation for those who have sinned against web design, maybe I can just go to web purgatory?
So what did the site actually have back then? The core of the site (like today) was the International House of Logorrhea, born out of those early dictionary searches and having about 7,000 words at that time (less than half of today's total). There were eleven glossaries: Sciences and Studies, Forms and Shapes, Carriages and Chariots, Divination and Fortune-Telling, Fabric and Cloth, Forms of Government, Grammatical Cases, Philosophical Isms, Colour Terms, Bearing and Carrying, and Adjectives of Relation. There were some links pages and extremely naïve essays – most of which you can still find here. And that's about it.
In late 1998, Geocities started to become less friendly after it added watermarks to websites and then, in early 1999, after the Yahoo buyout, it became clear that the advertising situation would become worse and that control of my content was at risk. Thus, Forthright's Phrontistery moved to its second URL at http://freespeech.org/forthright. Freespeech.org still operates to this day as Free Speech TV, but at the time it was offering advertising-free web hosting free of charge, with an emphasis on uncensored dissemination of information, which made a lot of sense to me, so off I went.
The main addition to the site during its time at Freespeech.org was the Loquacious Location of Lipograms. For a while there in 1999-2000 or so, I was quite fascinated by constrained writing (specifically but not limited to lipograms) and I may have fancied myself the next Georges Perec. Well, that didn't turn out, but that portion of the site (now rather sadly out of date) remains a fan favourite. There was also a brief moment, now a faded memory, at the height of the dot-com boom when I was involved in negotiations to license my content to a startup that was going to be a sort of dictionary provider of some nebulous sort. Needless to say, this did not ever come to be a reality, but there was a moment, just a vague moment, where there was a sort of backup plan in my head to become a professional internet lexicographer instead of an academic. We should all be thankful, I think, that this did not become a reality.
In 2001, Freespeech.org stopped offering free web hosting, and so I needed to find another home. That turned out to be 50megs.com, which was a convenient commercial site for hosting my stuff for free, and so off I went to http://phrontistery.50megs.com. It also allowed me to add a minor bit of commercial content to the site in the form of my Amazon.com recommendation pages for books and movies. Purchases made after clicking through those links still provide the bulk of the financial support for the site that allows it to operate (more or less) on a break-even basis. Direct donations are, of course, still welcome.
Also this period in late 2001 saw the development of a wide range of new glossaries, bringing the total up to around 20, a bunch of stuff on numeration and numerals (based on my academic work), and my list of 2 and 3-letter Scrabble words, which for a while there was the top Google result for 'scrabble words' and brought more traffic here than all other sources combined. As of July 2013, I'm still the fourth result, which is not bad for a page that took about an hour to create, over a decade ago. By this point in the site's history, it had become clear that the Phrontistery was not going to become the digital equivalent of a literary salon (not least because I've never had an open-posting forum or anything of the sort here), and that, rather than trying to be a general repository for historical and social knowledge (a ridiculously naïve claim to begin with), I should focus it on what the site had always done well, namely to provide interesting material on English words. So around this time, the mission statement changed for the site to reflect what had, effectively, always been the case since the site's inception.
2002 saw the addition of one of the more interesting features of the Phrontistery: the Compendium of Lost Words, with over 400 words that, up to that point, had not been defined on any publicly-accessible site on the internet (I got them from the subscription-access Oxford English Dictionary). Most of these are now discussed on many sites – for one thing, there are probably twenty times as many sites today as there were then. But I also take just a little credit for bringing some of these words back into some public exposure.
In late November 2004, things went weird at 50megs and I decided to abandon ship for my own URL at long last, http://phrontistery.info, which is obviously where it's stayed since then. At the same time, I formally dropped the 'Forthright's' from the name 'Forthright's Phrontistery' – the site had been just 'The Phrontistery' for years previous to that, but the header finally caught up. This also represented a major update to the International House of Logorrhea word lists, bringing it to around 15,500 words, and the glossaries, based on a thorough reading of the Oxford English Dictionary online. My trusty Chambers still hasn't gotten over the betrayal.
From 2006 to 2008 I ran a series of pronunciation polls featuring complexities in English pronunciation. This started as an amusement over on Livejournal, back when that was still a vibrant intellectual community, but starting in early 2007 I posted links to all of these over here at the Phrontistery as well, and you can still see all the results. I still have, in a file somewhere, a list of over 50 additional words that “in my copious free time” (ha!) that I have yet to poll.
As it turns out, 2008 marked a significant milestone in my life, in that I took a tenure-track position in anthropology at Wayne State University, which has inevitably taken up a chunk of my time since then. It also marked the genesis of my academic blog, Glossographia, where I have posted nearly 200 short essays of relevance to my academic expertise over the past five years, many of which overlap with or are relevant to the subject matter of the Phrontistery. Strangely enough, Glossographia has become more what the Phrontistery was intended to be originally, to whatever degree a blog can actually be a 'thinking-place', a repository for half-formed ideas and a community for serious discussion.
Starting in the spring of 2013 - unsurprisingly, just after all my materials went in for my tenure case - I undertook a major aesthetic refreshing of the site, updating it to better suit mobile devices and tablets as well as desktop/laptop computers (these days, over half my traffic comes from smaller devices), redesigning a few outdated parts, and generally cleaning house. I also put together the latest major update to the International House of Logorrhea (which now has over 17,000 words) and the various glossaries. Over 10,000 people a day visit the site, which I think is not too shabby considering its humble origins.
It's hard to believe, at this point, that I've been at phrontistery.info for nearly ten years (as of July 2014) but at this point it's hard to imagine moving again, barring some unforeseen catastrophe. I'm still here – I may not be adding a lot of content these days, but the Phrontistery still pays for itself and doesn't need much care to be of use. And of course, I still receive several emails a week from interested readers, and am always delighted to get correspondence. When I started the Phrontistery I was a 22-year-old kid, just starting graduate school, and now I'm married with a kid, a demanding job, a mortgage, and all that comes with it. But the heart and soul of the page, that 'thinking-place' that I set up on a lark back at the Dawn of the Web, is still right where it belongs.