Words in your personal dictionary

A recent highlight of my reading life – which unlike my blogging life has not been overly affected by the pandemic ­– is Eley Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary (William Heinemann, 2020). It’s a novel that does several things at once, weaving them successfully into a satisfying whole. It’s a story about love: love of people, of life, of words; it’s a mystery that straddles two eras; and it’s a fun, thoughtful exploration of lexicology.

Paperback book cover. The book is white at the top, sky-blue at the bottom, with the two colours divided through the middle with an uneven, curving line, like a torn page. Below the book title is a bird photographed in flight with mouth wide open, its throat red, breast yellow, and head and wing grey. Under the 'tear', the bird's body is in illustrated black and white. The top-half text is in dark purple, the bottom-half text in gold. As well as the title and author's name, there is also: 'Author of Attrib.' and a few short blurbs. Observer: 'A playful delight ... A glorious novel'. Spectator: 'Joyous'. Sunday Times: 'Remarkable'.

Design by Suzanne Dean

Most notably for my purposes here, the book is a word lover’s delight. Williams, who studied mountweazels as part of her PhD, has a deep interest in the nature and business not only of words – their emergence, development, and complex interaction with our minds and expressive apparatus – but also of word collection and definition: the creation and maintenance of dictionaries, and the semantic murk waded through routinely by lexicographers (and occasionally, less systematically, by the rest of us).

In The Liar’s Dictionary, the paraphernalia of writing might be overlaid on anything at all, to sometimes striking effect:

He thought of the moonlight finding tildes and breves on the cobblestones outside, the stop-and-start kerning of London’s early-morning traffic.

So taken is the book with the joyful manipulation of language that I could open it almost at random and see things worth sharing. I’ll go with the following passage, which has some lovely metaphors and sensations:

‘What would be in your personal dictionary?’ Pip asked me. It was January so the light had vanished from my window, and we were working as long a day in Swansby House as I could ever remember.

I stretched my arms and pinched the bridge of my nose. ‘I don’t know if there’s anything new to say.’

‘That’s the ambition of the woman I love,’ Pip said, and came around the back of my chair to wrap an arm gently about my shoulders.

What things in the world do I want to define for other people that might otherwise be overlooked? Coming up with words is a particular kind of weird creative peristalsis. The image is of someone tapping your brain as one might tap a trunk for syrup.

‘I’ve no idea,’ I said.

I thought: a word for how I always mistype warm as walm. Silly things. A word for knowing when the pasta is perfectly cooked just by looking at it. Crucial-silly things. A word for when you’re head-over-heels in love with someone and you’re both just burbling nonsense at each other, forgivably. A word for mispronouncing words that you had only ever seen written down. A word for your favourite songs that can never be over-listened to. A word for the great kindness of people who, unseen, take care to release insects that are trapped in rooms. A word for being surprised by an aspect of your physicality. A word for the way that sometimes thoughts can sit unpenetrable but snug like an avocado stone in your brain. A word for the strange particular bluish sheen of skin rolled between the fingers.

Some of these things may already have a word, albeit not widely known (misles, for example); some almost certainly don’t, at least in English. If you know a word in any language for the insect one, let me know: I have a need. In all it’s a lovely list of random experiences we don’t normally lexicalize.

What would be in your personal dictionary? Are there words you’ve coined to meet a personal need, or things you’d like a word for?


18 Responses to Words in your personal dictionary

  1. There are quite a few websites with words that are “made up” and defined…they are entertaining at least, and useful at best. Here is one:


    I suffer with jouska all the time.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s true, though I’d be curious to hear your own examples of words coined or needed, if there are any. Jouska (“a hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head”) is a familiar phenomenon, but it’s odd to see it described as an emotion.

  2. Mary says:

    Thanks for the review. I’m adding The Liar’s Dictionary to my reading list.

    Things I’d like to have a word for:
    -the peculiarly even light you get outside under a high overcast sky, brightish but shadowless
    -sudden vivid awareness of the 3D nature of the sky, like when you’re watching the sunset and realize you’re on a sphere turning away from the sun

    Hmm. I guess I really like the sky. 🙂

    • Stan Carey says:

      Those are great, Mary – a very particular phenomenon and a very particular experience without (as far as I know) a word to specify either. I share your intense enjoyment of the sky, and I think you’ll like The Liar’s Dictionary, if you get around to it.

  3. Bob says:

    I once half-joked in a Facebook post that I wished there was a word “that would explain the sadness I feel when I know the difference between barrelhouse, boogie-woogie, and ragtime, but Spotify doesn’t…”

    It actually didn’t go well. People focused on Weltschertz; after a number of replies that insisted that was the right word, I replied,

    “I need a new word for the sadness one feels when everyone thinks the solution is some German word…”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Maybe in a few years, the algorithm will have advanced enough to make that musical distinction.

      I presume you mean Weltschmerz, with an ‘m’ and no ‘t’. Your exchange on FB reminds me of a similar observation I once made:

      • Bob says:

        Thank you for the correction. I’m illiterate in everything but a few dialects of American English. The joy I feel learning more and more about language and languages might be similar to the feeling some astronomers have as they discover that the universe is larger and even more interesting than it was the day before.

        And thank you also for tweeting about “The Liar’s Dictionary” as you’ve read it, which nudged me to read it. (Speaking of algorithms, my library’s e-book reader tells me that nine people are ahead of me in line for its six copies, and I should receive it in about three weeks, well timed for a good summer read.)

  4. Stan, you may be sorry you asked:

    humormeter (hyoo MORM ih ter): The little-understood brain mechanism governing the human response to humor.

    Example: My daughter is laughing at every one of my jokes. Her humormeter must be broken.

    lanelocked: stuck immediately behind a slow-moving vehicle and thus unable to pass into a lane of more rapidly moving traffic because vehicles to the rear are already passing into that lane

    misinflame: to excite to excessive or uncontrollable action or feeling by means of false or misleading information : to make more heated or violent by means of false or misleading information

    There’s also misinflammation.

    plutonic: (of a relationship) formerly of great importance but now of little or no importance.

    Example: Their relationship is strictly plutonic.

    I’ll stop there. Humormeter and lanelocked are in common use in my household and car.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’m not sorry at all, Michael. These are great.

      When I read humormeter I expected its stress to fall on the first syllable, but the stress on syllable 2 somehow adds to its intrinsic funniness. It does however raise the question of whether the UK variety, humourmeter, would be pronounced differently.

      I can immediately see the usefulness of lanelocked and misinflame and will try to deploy them sometime.

  5. Stephanie Ruiz says:

    I have discovered a way to read everything around me by breaking up the word, pulling a feeling out of the word, then using different dictionaries, like latin, oxford, wiki, English, Greek, and symbols too! All together, etc.. i discover secrets, sometimes lies, contracts, or a basic simple common word, is this something like this lexicalizing or what is this, it’s so intriguing to me….

    • Stan Carey says:

      That sounds like a very rich and rabbit-holey method of reading. You would probably have fun with Finnegans Wake.

      • I’m happy to try anything unique or 1 of a kind, and the way for example i read or interpreted the us 1 $ bill is not like a unique language i created i used all the written dictionaries plus i simply broke the words up and defined them in different languages, and some natural you know curiosity/ intuition for the very last emblem/ part… It’s fun
        And super creepy at the same time… I like your style very much… By the way..

  6. Bob says:

    I finished The Liar’s Dictionary a little more than a week ago, and hoped I’d be able to keep it in my library’s e-book app for a second read, but it is understandably too in demand. Thank you again for mentioning it on Twitter and here. I rarely read fiction, but your posts teased me into it, and my friends will verify that I just couldn’t shut up about it. One sentence made me gasp not for what it said but for how it said it; I won’t allude to where, because I would feel guilty about the slightest spoiler, but what a delight. (Perhaps I’ll say that it wasn’t among your examples above, and I realized what Williams was doing about halfway through the sentence and started to reread that sentence from the beginning, to make sure I missed not a thing.)

    One of the joys of this book is that it might better be read as an e-book. I loved tapping on unfamiliar words to see whether the library app’s dictionary had a definition. I’d hate to estimate a percentage, because of the randomness of the intersection of my curiosity and the app’s limited dictionary, but I was happy to see that the book apparently contains many mountweazels. (Or are they former mountweazels now?)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for reporting back, Bob – I’m delighted to hear you got on so well with The Liar’s Dictionary, especially given the rarity of your forays into fiction. When I re-read it (which I will eventually), I’ll see if I can identify the line that made you gasp.

      I can see the appeal of going electronic with this book, but I read it the old-fashioned way – and with both old-fashioned and digital dictionaries to hand, which I made occasional use of. Since mountweazels, strictly speaking, are specific to reference works, a more suitable term in this case might be neologisms or hapax legomena.

  7. MB says:

    Is there a word for the pleasure of finding new podcasts or posts on a thread you hadn’t checked for a while? Delighted to read this one!

    • MB says:

      On a less flippant note, I will always remember realising how many words of Irish we use unthinkingly in Irish-English, when, on telling an English person that I was headed for the “leaba”, I was met with a blank face. (At the time, I spoke numerous other languages, so it’s not ignorance of translation that tripped me up – just a totally unexpected revelation that those of us who grew up in Ireland have such a richness in our spoken English!)

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