Book review: ‘The Dictionary of Difficult Words’ by Jane Solomon and Louise Lockhart

Early English dictionaries, such as A Table Alphabeticall (1604), did not aim to be thorough. Instead they defined only difficult and specialised vocabulary – the assumption being that ordinary, familiar words did not need explaining. There are practical benefits to learning difficult words, and they often have aesthetic and intellectual appeal too, whether they are ‘lost’ words or simply outside the everyday trade of language.

Book cover of The Dictionary of Difficult Words. It is mainly dark blue, with lots of individual letters and small images scattered about, such as a worm, boat, guitar, rainbow, and butterfly. In the middle is a pink rectangle with ragged edges. Inside it is the title, in red and white text, and the author and illustrator's name in black underneath.Children in particular can be delighted by weird and wonderful words. And children in particular will lap up The Dictionary of Difficult Words, a new book written by lexicographer Jane Solomon and illustrated by Louise Lockhart. It’s aimed principally at readers aged 7–12, but this is a publication that will brighten anyone’s bookshelf. It would be very much at home in school libraries too.

Before opening the book, I was struck by how attractive it is as an object. The large, slim hardback has an embossed title and beautiful texture on the cover. The design throughout is fun and expressive, with multiple drawings or collages on every page. The whole package is artfully coloured and styled, with lexical and graphic marvels galore.

Some definitions are pithy:

fandango: ‘The fandango is an energetic Spanish dance.’

lycanthrope: ‘A lycanthrope is a werewolf.’

void: ‘A void is a large and empty space.’

Others are more elaborate:

gargoyle: ‘A gargoyle is a stone statue that looks like a frightening or ugly creature. Gargoyles appear on older buildings and are often part of the water-draining system.’

naïve: ‘If someone is naïve, they don’t have a lot of life experience. They believe what they are told, even if it’s not true, and they tend to trust people who are not very trustworthy.’

The dictionary has fun words (borborygmus, defenestrate, kerfuffle, ninnyhammer, ripsnorter, spaghettification, yomp), fancy words (ailurophile, catoptromancy, sternutation, thigmotropism, zygodactyls), useful words (eclectic, homage, juxtapose, paradigm, volatile, zeitgeist), and words for lovely things (glockenspiel, moonbowpetrichor, xiph).

This two-page spread gives a sense of Solomon’s and Lockhart’s styles and how pleasingly they accompany one another:

Two pages from the book. On the left is a giant letter T, in white on a yellow background with red and white border. Around the T are small drawings of a telephone, tiger, triangle, tulip, tea cup, tortoise, and toothbrush and toothpaste. On the right are various words, defined: taciturn, tandem, tempestuous, testudinal, thalassic, thespian, and thigmotropism. These are accompanied by illustrations: two rabbits on a tandem, a tortoise, a mermaid, a Shakespearean actor on a stage, and a flower with tendrils wrapping around a stake.

There are lots of science and nature words, words about feelings and emotions, language words (idiolect, jargon, neologism, vernacular), and an odd word that made me think about language change: something fortuitous is said to be ‘a good and lucky thing that happens unexpectedly’. (See the AHD usage note on the word’s development.)

Speaking of usage notes, the book has several of its own; for example:

absquatulate: ‘People use this word when they want to be funny.’

fourscore: ‘When people use this word, they are usually quoting something that was written a long time ago.’

newfangled: ‘When a person calls something newfangled, they’re saying it’s new in a way that they don’t like because it’s different from what they’re used to.’

Readers often learn words from books before they hear them spoken – which can lead to misles – so the pronunciation notes under each word are welcome. There’s a short, friendly introduction, listing the many ways you can read the book (forwards, backwards, randomly, aloud, silently, in the dark with a torch, etc.). And there is explicit endorsement of singular they and of inventing words. Hooray!

You can order The Dictionary of Difficult Words from your local bookshop or your preferred store via Quarto.

Full disclosure: The publisher sent me a complimentary copy of the book, and I know Jane Solomon online. Disclaimer: I haven’t had a chance to ask my young niblings (nephew and niece) how they like it. My guess is: plenty.

Image from the dictionary. The text: "SNUGGERY [snuhg-uh-ree]. noun. A snugger is a comfortable and cozy place." Under the text is a drawing of a woman sitting on a couch with cushions by a window. She's reading a book and wearing pyjamas.

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3 Responses to Book review: ‘The Dictionary of Difficult Words’ by Jane Solomon and Louise Lockhart

  1. DawninNL says:

    Wonderful. I learned a new and useful word: nibling. Thanks 😊

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s a great word, yet it’s not listed in any major dictionary. I wish it was better known. Some people use niephling, niebling, or another term.

      • DawninNL says:

        I was just thinking, I personally don’t really need the word because I only have nieces but then remembered that I have great niblings. How cool is that?

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