Meet the accidental spam king who was born in 1868
A guru, pastor, and teacher, Kleiser made his living as a language guru selling public speaking tips to the masses. A hundred years later, he’s still teaching people—and computers—how to speak. How that happened might be the most surprising thing about his extraordinary career.
Who was Grenville Kleiser?
On the surface, Grenville Kleiser was like any self-help guru: extraordinary in his own time, but less than a footnote to history.
He was a former instructor of public speaking at Yale Divinity School, but he published books intended for the general public, like How To Speak In Public, How To Develop Power And Personality In Speaking, How To Develop Self-Confidence In Speech And Manner, How To Argue And Win, and more. He even wrote a book about telling great jokes (and held classes teaching humorless people how to appear funny).
These books built off a career in public instruction and helped Kleiser become an authority on public speaking.
Kleiser taps the market
These books were the start of an ad campaign that saw Kleiser pumping his fist in the nation’s newspapers. He even wrote an op-ed in the Washington Times, instructing readers on eight helpful habits (yes, lists have always worked to sell things). All in all, his work seems like the making of a career, but not a legacy—instructions in speech and etiquette are practical but impermanent. Though he was a New York Times staple as well, his reputation would seem to sit in a nebulous space between theologian, intellectual, self-helper, and speech tutor.
The catch? One of his books is consistently one of the top 100 books downloaded on Project Gutenberg (note that the list regularly changes). As of this writing, his book was downloaded more times in one week than Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, and The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Without a doubt, just one of Kleiser’s book is by far his most popular, with over 1,800 downloads compared to 68 downloads for his next most popular book.
The reason? Probably a mix of new students and some very lucky spammers.
Kleiser’s 1910 book is perfect for spam: inconceivable absurdity or incontrovertible truth?
“Blatant discourse, expiatory sacrifices, it will carry out my meaning more fully.”That top book is a verbosely titled guide book that seems to have become Kleiser’s masterpiece: Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases: A Practical Handbook of Pertinent Expressions, Striking Similes, Literary, Commercial, Conversational, And Oratorical Terms, For The Embellishment Of Speech And Literature, And The Improvement Of The Vocabulary Of Those Persons Who Read, Write, And Speak English.
The key part to focus on is Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases. It’s the perfect resource for modern spammers using a technique called word salad. Spammers found his book and started downloading it in droves.
Word salad spammers use random phrases to get past spam security filters, because your spam filter sees these legitimate phrases as indicators of a real message (though, in the case of spam, they never are). Kleiser’s book is the perfect resource for spammers: vetted phrases that are already sorted into a separated list.
Looking at his list reveals a goldmine of spammy sounding phrases, dada poetry that makes sense in context but, out of it, is only real enough to fool a computer: blatant discourse, expiatory sacrifices, it will carry out my meaning more fully. The book gives just enough human attention to language that it seems real.
In a strange way, Kleiser’s book teaches English to a new group of students: computer programs. And the truth in the introduction to Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases holds even today:
The English Language is so complex in character that it can scarcely be learned by rule, and can best be mastered by the study of such idioms and phrases as are provided in this book.
That’s the exact reason Kleiser’s book is a more popular download than any of his other books and many celebrated classics: even a hundred years after his book was published, he still understands English better than a computer.