Words, Words, Words: The Story behind The Word of the Month

Recently, I spoke with Andrew Arnon, Jim Sheppard and Benjamin Levy of Gymglish, the Paris-based language learning outfit that has produced The Word of the Month online for more than ten years.


Arnon, a San Francisco native, does the writing; Jim Sheppard, a Brit, does the illustrations; and Benjamin Levy, a native of France, who also co-founded Gymglish, serves as chief editor. Gymglish started in 2004 as a provider of language lessons to French speakers in Paris. In Levy's bio from the book version of their successful blog, out now from TBR Books, he said he started Gymglish with the modest goal of having fun every day. So, I asked the three how The Word of the Month became fun for them and their audience.

Arnon interjected that before The Word of the Month, Gymglish was known for outside-the-box language lessons which were not anchored in the "real world". This new initiative was decidedly tethered to the real world–to current events and the words used to describe them–and geared towards English language learning. Sheppard added that "people are interested in the news. People latch on to it to learn language," describing some of these words as even "sexy".

Levy stated that "when we started Gymglish, teachers would use newspapers to teach language." With The Word of the Month, they sought to create a mix of vocabulary stemming from everyone's world-wide connection to the news in the modern age. But, to treat these words in a fun way. Though the monthly lexical publication is obviously digital, Paris proved to be the perfect place to start this web-based wordly wisdom. As Arnon told me, Paris "has a history, a long legacy, of people being intellectually curious," adding "the format is key to why it's fun: You don't need a dictionary."

"People in Paris are international, cultivated and willing to laugh." 

This sounds like the perfect recipe for launching a humorous, word-centered website; a tasty treat like a good crème brûlée in a Parisian bistrot.

The idea to eventually translate the English words of the month into French, Spanish and German came about because the initial Gymglish spoke these other European languages.At the beginning, The Word of the Month was very French-English targeted, including when they were brought onto the French newspaper of record, LeMonde.fr. Then, as the number of languages expanded, the site became more internationally focused and the writing developed from the English-French dynamic.

As Levy said, "After 12 years, we're trying to zoom out." 10962186458?profile=RESIZE_400x

He admitted that they "talk more about Western [than other] cultures," but explains that comes from the fact that "we teach Western languages." "We are aware that our perspective is Western. Looking at the glass half full, we have the diversities of one British, one American and one French person; subcultures of the overall Western culture."

When asked for their favorite word or drawing since the site started in 2010, Sheppard cited "holy", noting that, as the illustrator, his favorite words are those with the best drawings. With this one, there was a debate over how to undertake it, because of the delicate nature of how people perceive and use the word. Levy expanded on this, saying that they explained this word by offering a few choice examples from pop-cultural slang: "holy mackerel", "holy cow", and "holy shit". 

Some of his personal favorites include "Dog days" (the cover art for their new book) and "fake". The three also agreed on a lockdown-inspired word, "bake", as a preferred word. Arnon observes that in the last few years there have been quite a few "Covid-inspired words" but that team is "having fun with this". On a heartwarming note, he recalls "Mother", which as he describes from memory has a "poorly-sketched girl handing her mother a drawing of a poorly-sketched mother, and her mom loving it."

Levy said he loves Andrew's jokes about dogs and loves Jim drawing them in a silly fashion. Jim, for his part, said he actually finds drawing dogs, and animals in general, rather challenging. Other words, like "holy" were more delicate and, perhaps, loaded, so their publication came with some apprehension. 

"Woke", for example, for Arnon, was "so hard to define", but said he likes the words that receive a lot of comments, which that one certainly did. Race-related words, such as "matter," published during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020 were put out with a bit of caution. Sheppard, the illustrator, chose "shed", which was released after the Charlie Hebdo shootings by Muslim extremists in Paris. Levy assented, saying "we were close to Charlie Hebdo's offices [where the shootings took place]. Impossible to talk about it; impossible to not talk about it."

The chief editor and co-founded of Gymglish, Levy, proffered an honest admission of bias, saying they can receive criticism "when you talk about women, race, minorities, since we are three male, white authors."

One of the big success stories within Gymglish and The Word of the Month has been their collaboration with esteemed newspaper Le MondeLevy explained that the relationship "was good all along. They didn't want to censor or even read us." This was helped by a clear statement on their section of Le Monde's website that The Word of the Month wasn't written by LeMonde.fr's staff. "We were not on the homepage, we were not pushed, so they were cool."

After 7 or 8 years, the French journalism giant offered them a blog, with full autonomy. And they were ok with the dog jokes. A huge coup for a language-lesson start-up. Arnon, for his part, said "on the content side, things were totally hands off." Being on such a reputable site allowed The Word of the Month to be opened up to new readers. One particular slogan for Gymglish's French language lessons gained traction with internet users of Le Monde and caught the eye of the staff of the parent site: "Arrogance doesn't come overnight, it takes practice." After Le Monde used this, there was some Twitter buzz and some backlash for perceived "French-bashing". Le Monde's CEO was forced to respond and remove the copy, but otherwise there were no repercussions.

The trio's reaction to Le Monde's recent foray into a full English-language online version was, expectedly, positive.

Levy detailed that "Le Monde was very late [to the English-language game]", celebrating that "at last we have an English language version" and critiquing the venerable publication for being "very French-centric". This sort of thing "happens in other countries. I'm personally very happy that they have opened up to international audiences." Sheppard was a bit more bullish, saying "Not sure how many people will read it, but I think it's a good idea."10962186490?profile=RESIZE_400x

Arnon circled back to Levy's approbation: "It's great that it's a dedicated site, not just run through a translator. A step in the right direction. France has this protectionist attitude. It can be good." He mentions the long-standing requirement for French radio to play at least 33% French-language music, to offset the heavy rotation of English-language bands. In this way, Arnon stated, France does not become "an America junior. As with the tech boom, there are more English words. Woke figures into that. Older people are complexed about their ability to speak English, because they were taught [English] by French people. The more they're exposed, the better. Younger people are exposed to English via the internet."

"The Word of the Month is a short, fun, funny way to do that."


-Andrew Palmacci

To order The Word of the Month, click here


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