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.
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?