Wednesday 2 November 2022

The Liar's Dictionary by Eley Williams at the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle

The Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle returned for a new year by reading something a little different. Instead of an 18th century focus, the book in question was a novel that dealt with dictionaries. Eley Williams, author of The Liar’s Dictionary joined the group for a free-wheeling evening that took in dictionaries, local names for moss, character names and the inspiration for Ratty in The Wind in the Willows.

The novel follows two strands. The first is of Mallory, intern and lone employee at Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a project from the turn of the twentieth century which was never completed. At the turn of the twenty-first century, what was completed of the dictionary is being put online but there is a problem, mountweasels. These are incorrect entries, either put in out of ignorance, mistake or a trick against copyright theft. It turns out Swansby’s is full of them. The other strand follows Winceworth, an employee of the dictionary in its heyday and the originator of these pernicious non-words.

Naturally, this being a novel about dictionaries and a discussion held at Dr Johnson’s House, there was a lot of discussion about dictionaries and the legitimacy of words in general. What gave Johnson the authority to record language for posterity? To include such old words as ‘kicksy-wicksy’ or obscure ones as ‘retromingency’? Although not invented by Johnson, an archaic form of endearment or a term for animals urinating backwards are arguably less useful than Winceworth’s own ‘unbedoggerel - to elucidate from nonsense’, or ‘auroflorous - to escape at night, usually with a renewed sense of purpose’. Williams talked about how she came up with these mountweasel words, either by starting with a pleasing set of sounds and assigning a meaning, or thinking of something that is lacking a word to describe it. 

One of the plot elements in The Liar’s Dictionary is a sequence of bomb threats sent to the twenty-first century Swansby’s dictionary in protest at their change of the definition of ‘marriage’ to be between two people, without specifying gender. On a trip last month to Miriam Webster’s in the USA, there was a bomb threat over their definition of the word ‘woman’. The definition of words still (or more increasingly) has the power to excite strong feelings in people and as much as it purports to be, defining a word is not a neutral act.

For Noah Webster, writing a dictionary was a way of fencing off an American language as separate from its English forbear. For the brother’s Grimm, it was an act of nation building, creating a German people from their shared language (as well as their shared body of folktales). For Johnson it was ‘dull work’. For the characters in the book, the dictionary was a way of boxing the world in and creating control, only for life to burst out in other ways.

The character’s names were a particular class of word that had meaning in the book. There was the character of Glossop, so named because Wittgenstein lived there and she had to get a reference to his philosophy of language games. Winceworth, a character who winces when he connects with others and discovers his own self-worth in the book, even if that takes the form of the smallest rebellion possible. Then there’s Mallory, people in the book guess at her name’s meaning, whether there’s an exploration connection, or a King Arthur one - it actually comes from computer programming where Mallory is a nickname for mal-ware in software test run.

Some character’s names purposefully didn’t fit them. Sophia Slivkovna is a character whose surname is causing problems for the upcoming Russian translation as it is no Russian name - but then Sophia may be no Russian. Nor is she a source of sophia - or knowledge, but a human mountweasel in the text, a form of disruption.

The word of the night was ‘idiosyncratic’. Some read the book in an idiosyncratic fashion, reading one of the strands, skipping the chapters with the other and then going back. There was the idiosyncratic nature of Winceworth’s mountweasels. The idiosyncratic ways that people read a dictionary, that they write one. A dictionary is a book that aspires to authority, to be beyond one person’s own understanding of words but they frequently are not, none more so than Johnson’s itself. This novel is also idiosyncratic, a link-making, word-creating work of play and it was fun to play with.

(As for my own idiosyncratic reading experience...) 

Generally, I feel it’s a bit of an insult to praise a novel for the quality of the sentences. A novel is a larger beast, working through chapters, maybe paragraphs at its shortest and to praise it for its sentences if to suggest it is fussy and overworked. A novel may have one or two zingers in it but to notice one at a sentence length just seems like praising a building for the shapeliness of its bricks. But this book does have great sentences. Whether it’s the preface that declares a good dictionary needs ‘a typeface with cheekbones’ and then starts with a character in a ‘stationa/ery cupboard’ eating a boiled egg (though they sometimes spend lunch ‘chase-licking individual grains of rice’ around a tupperware container’ while the ‘afternoon tugged around the clock’. In the end I had to tell myself to stop writing down choice phrases as there were too many.

As playful as the book was, it didn’t come across as pretentious. Partly because all the links and connections seemed to come from a place of joy, rather than showing off and partly because the book included little details, like picking up a dog poo with a choc-ice wrapper. It’s also (probably) the only novel I’ve read with a Crinkley Bottom/ Mr Blobby reference.

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