If you think that a book about lexicography, the making of a dictionary, would be boring, think again. First, there was the 1998 book, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. It was such a compelling story that in 2019 it was made into a movie starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn.
Now there is an insanely clever novel, a debut by Eley Williams, that will tickle the funny bones and brighten the brains of any word nerd alive. The Liar’s Dictionary is a must-read for those of us who love language. The Liar’s Dictionary is a marvelous, funny, insightful look at how language encapsulates meaning. How, regardless of its prowess, language is still incapable of capturing every emotion or experience. It imagines the people who compiled the early dictionaries, and the confluence of personalities and events that motivated one lexicographer to manufacture Mountweazels.
The Motivation for Mountweazels in The Liar's Dictionary
Eley Williams’ novel grew from her graduate dissertation. It was a study of “Mountweazels,” false words that are placed in dictionaries as a kind of copyright. (How much variation can there be between word definitions, anyway? How do you tell the difference between one dictionary’s recitation of meaning and another dictionary’s portrayal of that same word?) The insertion of one “mountweazel” in a dictionary volume would guarantee that others couldn’t copy the work done by another company. Williams’ fascination with “Mountweazels” morphed into a novel about the publishing of Swansby’s dictionary and a lexicographer named Peter Winceworth. Winceworth was a man who was so uncomfortable with social conventions that he preferred to fake a lisp to avoid conversations. He often felt invisible, but he gained confidence by mastering the language — sort of like having a secret superpower based on his knowledge of the lexicon. (Writers and readers get that!)
The Mountweazels That Might Have Been
Winceworth’s imaginative and useful Mountweazels, those manufactured and false words, were never dispersed into the public eye because Swansby’s dictionary was never finished — despite Winceworth’s hope:
“He could define parts of the world that only he could see or for which he felt responsible. He could be in control of a whole universe of new meanings, private triumphs and soaring new truths all hidden in the printed pages whenever the diction was finished and (absurd notion!) others might find his words in print. …Winceworth imagined his personal words and thoughts on every bookshelf up and down the country.”
The Dictionary Detective
More than a century later, the last living Swansby decides to finally bring the unfinished dictionary to publication. The fortune of the once wealthy Swansby family, however, has diminished, and David Swansby can only afford to hire one worker, a woman named Mallory, whose duties include finding the Mountweazels that had infiltrated the first dictionary manuscript.
What follows is an intriguing tale with two parallel timelines and two lexicographers a hundred years apart, one creating Mountweazels, the other uncovering them.
Mountweazels Are Not a Thing of the Past:
Mountweazels aren’t just a concept from the 1800s. Modern dictionaries use them as well. The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2001, included the made-up word "esquivalience," and its fake definition: "the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities . . . late 19th cent.: perhaps from the French esquiver, “dodge, slink away.”
Other words crop up in the novel that sound perfectly rational, so convincing that I thought they were more words I didn’t know just waiting to be added to the long list of other terms I learned while reading The Liar’s Dictionary.
In reality, many of the words I was reading were Mountweazels created by a wily lexicographer. The lexicographer asked the question... “is there a word for…"
…the feeling you get when you walk through a spider web?
…knowing when the pasta is perfectly cooked just by looking at it?
… marshaling someone you love to safety?
If there wasn't a word, the lexicographer made one up.
What words don’t exist for something you’ve experienced? What words would you create?
In The Liar's Dictionary, Winceworth came up with these fictional words:
“agrupt” — made up. noun and adjective. “irritation caused by having a denouement ruined.”
“Freasquiscent” — A desk that has been organized, sorted, cleaned, and is ready for work. (I understand the need for this word because I practice the same concept. It’s both soothing and inspiring to have a work area prepared for productivity.)
Your Own Personal Dictionary
Now the wheels are turning. What words would I create to explain a concept that’s never been encapsulated in a term? Is there a word for….” “Words cannot express”? For the sudden and irrepressible onslaught of memories? For a friend who is a mother, mentor, colleague, confidante, and traveling companion all rolled into one? Or for that rude person in a restaurant carrying on a conversation via speakerphone?
Word Wizardry At Its Best
I’ve been a reader all my life, and in the process of consuming books, I’ve learned a lot of words…or at least that’s what I thought until I read The Liar’s Dictionary. It started a little slow, but the more I read, the more amazed and humbled I was by Eley Williams’ mastery of the language.
The list of words I DIDN’T know is long: bletted, forbs, corymbs, umbrels, panicles, psithurism, smeuse, chicanes, glume, apricity, apricide, pernicious, crypsis, fillip, bleurgh, philology, and baize…ALL before page sixty. (Did you know that a group of cats is called a “clowder”? Me neither.)
There were times I wanted to cry “UNCLE!” torn between admiration for this constant show of word mastery and resentment for being such a show-off…(I kept thinking of my recent experience reading Nabokov’s Lolita and the dozens and dozens of vocabulary words I ingested.) BUT I’m elated that I learned so much new vocabulary. (The pages of my copy of The Liar's Dictionary are now filled with notations, arrows, definitions, and derivations, marginalia at its best.)
One of my favorite new word finds accurately expresses my feelings about writing:
Jouissance: “physical or intellectual pleasure, delight, or ecstasy. Enjoyment or pleasure that goes beyond the mere satisfaction of an instinct.”(In French, the word has sexual implications of seismic proportions.)
The Old Adage: Can You Judge a Book By Its Cover?
You may not be able to judge the contents of a book by its cover, but it can sure influence you to buy it. I am not a fan of the bright-colored, graphic shapes with block-letter titles that are prevalent in the industry today. I am, however, hooked by interesting book covers. My personal preference is for book jackets with a little artistry that allude to the plot of the book.
The cover for The Liar’s Dictionary reeled me in. Had it not been for the art, I might not have picked it up to read the blurbs. I think it’s cool, this proud peacock strutting his pages.
Book Cover by Doubleday: Penguin-Random House
A Must-Read Book for Language Lovers
The Liar’s Dictionary is a rollicking tale of words and woes; of attraction and identity; of dreams and disillusionment. Compelling. Clever. Captivating.
One of the book blurbs on the back of the jacket says this: “A virtuoso performance full of charm…It’s simultaneously a love story, an office comedy, a sleuth mystery, and a slice of gaslit late Victoriana…The Liar’s Dictionary is a glorious novel — a perfectly crafted investigation of our ability to define words and their power to define us.” — The Guardian
A Liar’s Dictionary is a novel for language lovers, a sonnet to semantics, and a veritable ode to expression. If you’re a word nerd, a writer, or someone who loves a good read, get The Liar’s Dictionary.
Because, after all, as Williams so aptly quips: “Finding the right word can be a private joy.”
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