Playing On Words
Students pump up their lexicons with his site’s exercises.
By Marina Krakovsky
When U.S. News & World Report selected the Internet’s best sites for high school students several years ago, its roundup included Barron’s, Princeton Review—and Vocabulary University, a website of puzzles and cartoons dedicated to vocabulary improvement. Located at vocabulary.com, it was a pop-and-mom operation among giant corporate ventures, and the magazine’s readers might have been surprised to learn that Vocabulary University was the brainchild of an institutional stockbroker, Carey Orr Cook.
“You can’t get that kind of visibility today,” says Cook, ’65. Still, vocabulary.com, which since its launch in 1997 has registered more than 10,000 schools in the United States, is attracting more users than ever—currently about 140,000 unique visitors per month, some from as far as China and New Zealand. Not bad for a part-time operation run out of Cook’s home in Menlo Park. “We’re doing it on a shoestring,” Cook says of himself and his wife, Jan, a retired French teacher who complements Cook’s cartooning and puzzle-creating with her pedagogical know-how.
Although the site’s budget is small, for many cash-strapped American schools—which have to contend with low-bandwidth dial-up connections and tend to mistrust commercial slickness—its content is spot-on. Vocabulary.com doesn’t have Flash animations or Shockwave games. Its interactivity is rudimentary, and the home page has never crossed the screen of a usability expert. But what Vocabulary University lacks in professional polish, it compensates for with generosity and wholesomeness. In addition to the collection of word lists and vocabulary puzzles, visitors see the welcoming faces of several cartoon “faculty,” all drawn by Cook. These include pigtailed dean of faculty Cinny Nym and prim professor of library science Etta Molly Gee. The friendly, upbeat Sam Mantics, quite possibly Cook’s alter ego, serves as dean of admissions and directions.
Cook, a Harvard MBA who works in San Francisco’s Financial District, says one of the site’s great appeals is that it is free. No surprise there. But if the stream of grateful e-mails from users is any indication, this isn’t a case of getting what you pay for.
Just ask Jo Ann Nash, who teaches struggling readers at Westwood High School in Austin, Texas. She experienced minor panic last October upon discovering that the Halloween-themed vocabulary list her class had brainstormed had been erased from the blackboard. But a quick search of the Cooks’ website saved the day’s lesson. Vocabulary.com had a list of 105 “spooky” words and several puzzles. “The kids loved the great graphics, and they spent the whole class period finding the puzzle answers,” Nash says.
Alongside tried-and-true puzzle styles, such as definition-word matching and crosswords, Cook offers several formats he invented. In a Rooty*Hoot*Hoot puzzle, for example, he provides etymological roots and their meanings to lead students to words. A Halloween Rooty*Hoot*Hoot shows a colorful photograph of candy corn with hints leading to words like macabre and crypt. A typical question asks players to fill in the letters of the seven-letter English word meaning “to stun or paralyze with terror.” Hint: it’s derived from the Latin roots, petra for “rock” and fac for “make.” If that’s too easy, remember the target audience: middle and high school students.
Words and their origins have been something of an obsession of Cook’s for years; you might say he’s hooked on morphemes. Because his parents divorced when he was a baby, he grew up in the home of his maternal grandfather, Carey Orr, a Chicago Tribune political cartoonist for whom Cook was named. Conversations with Cook about language often circle back to his grandfather. “I respected his verbal agility and wanted to emulate it; it’s as if he were a professional basketball player and I aspired to get to the majors.”
In those days, the Tribune published its political cartoon in color on the newspaper’s front page. The cartoonist, Cook explains, played a key editorial role—and needed to be not only a witty illustrator, but also a skillful wordsmith. Faced with the constraint of a tiny caption, “Grandpa was struggling mightily to find the right word.” Orr often turned to reference books on word origins, such as Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, which Cook inherited. Orr’s cartoons won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961, the same year his grandson started Stanford.
Thanks to Grandpa Orr’s place in the cartooning world, Cook made a splash at the Phi Gamma Delta house his sophomore year with his memento from home—a Donald Duck animation cel signed, “To Carey Cook, All best wishes, Walt Disney.” The piece, which now hangs in Cook’s office library, quickly earned the affable Cook the nickname “Duck.”
“Anyone at Stanford in the early ’60s could not help but be aware of who Carey Cook was,” says classmate Maria Reeves, ’65, a professional illustrator who created some early artwork at Vocabulary University. “If you went to football games, there he was, leading the cheers!”
His pep is directed at the website these days. Cook says that when he turned 50, he realized, “If I don’t do anything with comics and education soon, I’ll be 60 and I’ll be kicking myself.” So he keeps California brokers’ hours—getting up at 4:15 a.m. to take calls from Wall Street—and spends up to four hours after work on his avocation. Jan Cook spends an hour and a half each day answering users’ e-mails. ”They’re the most positive, energetic people I’ve ever worked with,” says Reeves, who first met Cook in person at a 25th-reunion meeting at his house. Their collaboration began after she remarked on his handwriting: was the stockbroker also an artist?
The website is only one of Cook’s vocabulary projects. A puzzle, Rootonym, is syndicated by Tribune Media Services and uClick/Universal. He draws a vocabulary comic strip, The VOCONs, which features Sam Mantics and the gang explaining the background and use of such words as rival and investigate. It runs six days a week in the Small Newspaper Group, a Midwest chain headed by Cook’s fraternity brother Rob Small, ’64.
If Cook had his way, he would work on his vocabulary cartoons full time. But for now he enjoys what he calls the “psychic income” from the site—the fan letter he received last year from a teen in juvenile hall, for example, or the word list gleaned from A Passage to India that was submitted by an earnest high school junior. It was modeled after an activity from Vocabulary University. Among the 111 words E.M. Forster had taught the young man: seditious, sahib and pedantic.
Marina Krakovsky, ’92, is a writer in San Mateo.
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Data is from the past two weeks.