33 thoughts on “The Liar’s Dictionary – Eley Williams


    “From childhood we’re taught that a dictionary begins, roughly, with an aardvark and ends, roughly, with a zebra…”

    And a ‘preface’ is different from a ‘prologue’. A dictionary as unreliable narrator or a brainwright? Or even a drogulus? This is pure unadulterated literary wordplay that I can savour like the choicest delicacies of provender in the mouth of reading. Words that are not coined as neologisms but minted into the sensual rarities they surely are. But can there be a perfect preface, can there indeed be a perfect dictionary? Using it or reading it. Registering or fixing.
    A week or so ago, ‘perfection’ was broached in the massive Robert Shearman magnum opus in his ‘The Disappointing Story In The Book’ that I reviewed here: https://etepsed.wordpress.com/883-2/#comment-2181 and I sense this fact is due to become relevant to THIS review. Something I captured yesterday: ‘yesterfang’, a word for having clinched my a – z review of the whole Shearman shebang the day before today!

  2. A

    “…weasels are able to slurp the contents of an egg while leaving the shell intact.”

    This book is, so far, perfect for the likes of me. And I could very well show off in this real-time review of it by sharing and extrapolating upon its adept wordplay and absurdisms of event, absurdisms that have even more truth than the fiction they surely are part of. But I hope I won’t show off. The ‘story’, meanwhile, of this narratively young intern working at a dictionary publishers office with all its backstory and its current head. The egg in the cupboard. All that. It literally had me laughing out loud several times, with both linguistic delight and plot amusement. I must savour this book, letter by letter, and day by day (bar the odd private emergency in my life). It is my latest lockdown masterpiece to tide me over, I am already sure. No exaggeration.

  3. B

    “(the orange complexities thereof)”

    …which begs the question whether tigers in general (like the little girl’s tiger at the end of this chapter) are to be deemed orange or black. Trump, too?
    The previous chapter introduced a character called Mallory working at the Encyclopaedic Dictionary’s office. Now we have another — Winceworth (a morphing of this treasured book’s tantamount to Wordsworth?) who is sent by the firm with what turns out to be the bluff of a lisp (interesting backstory) to an elocutionist with an orange songbird in his consulting room. I can NOT do justice to this book. It simply IS. A treasure indeed. So many words of rare beauty and semantics and phonetics crisscrossed with plush and witty syntax, yet, by some miracle, a narrative that is accessible, smooth, engaging, fluent….

  4. C

    I note that Mallory is a narrator, but Winceworth is a third person singular. Mallory here — and you as a second person plural will never forget reading these remarkable passages — describes the various digital waiting devices such as hourglass and ouroboros vis à vis life itself. And the historical flux of words themselves. Swansby, the observed head of the family firm, between computer chess games, proposes digitising their dictionary….
    I am caught between this book’s deployed trammels that further trap my tactile love of words and the following of these characters whither I know not. Tantalised is hardly sufficient a word to describe how I feel. But I am determined to eschew any use of the Internet while reading and reviewing the book. Any use of it, that is, other than posting my thoughts ON it! And I no longer have any hard copy dictionaries. I do not lie.

  5. D

    “Language is something you accept or trust rather than necessarily want to test out.”

    A sort of Wittengensteinery? I am personally notorious for seeking out typos or infelicities in books of fiction and, as part of my real-time reviewing process, make them seem meaningful. I am all heart. What is the difference, meanwhile, between coinages (like Coleridge’s cited in this chapter) and my neologisms that I used to list HERE and there en masse. This chapter otherwise tells of Winceworth’s arrival at work in the Scrivenery after drinking too much the night before. His colleagues, the office chitchat politics, his up-slips of a lisp, the pigeonholes, but so much more you need to get down to, reading them clean and clear, not dirty, this book’s trove of words and nostalgic minutiae. A world order from word order. Pencil points dangerously near the eye. The social distancing of the Anglo-Saxon scholars, as well as of or from Winceworth. By the way, if I ever feel I have discovered a typo or infelicity in THIS book, I will not hold back from telling you! So far so good.

  6. E

    “The police came quickly and appeared to take the bomb threat seriously. Swansby House was so close to Buckingham Palace that they had all the right gear and were presumably ready to spring into onto unto action.”

    Another crank call to the office, in times when bombs were perhaps more regular in London, allowing Mallory somehow to reveal to us gender and orientation when standing outside Swansby House’s scrivenery and the idle whiling away of speculation on the need to rate dictionaries by what rude words they carry in addition to the same words’ alternative definitions. And now equally we realise the different Mallorys there have been in history in addition to this book’s narrative Mallory.

  7. F

    Whatever f for fake news I myself may have been guilty of allowing to let slip about Winceworth’s place in the Swansby firm’s chronology of personnel – as well as in general English history itself – I see that, hilariously, he is also not averse to using weaponised words as concocted coinages with which to voodoo-stab colleagues he may dislike. It’s simply whether such coinages ever receive provenance in the dictionary itself? And thus whether our reality today is beyond any suspicion of becoming an alternate world? (That second query is mine, not necessarily this book’s.)

  8. G

    “While some seventy-year-olds grow stooped with every passing year, David Swansby had unfurled:”

    My body, as such a septuagenarian’s, has grown more stooped than unfurled, I admit! Yet my mind seems to have grown unfurled and unstooped, if I say so myself! I loved this chapter about, not so much the recurrent office cat called Tits and its name’s derivation, but the concept of ‘mountweazels’. Note my earlier reference above quoting this book about ‘weasels’. Here the concept of fake words, whether accidental or deliberate seems to play fast and loose with Wimsatt’s Intentional Fallacy, and more. I’ll let you read this chapter for yourself, as to tell you more about it would likely spoil it. Mallory, apparently, is now instructed to investigate this firm’s past mountweazels. I relish the prospect…
    Meanwhile, I seem to have spent much time with my own mountweazels (including ‘nemonymous’), a list that I linked to above … but some of these are not strict mountweazels but first-use-expressions….

  9. H

    “Walking and alphabets could be, he decided, a marvellous therapy.”

    Synchronously, my own “abecedarian course” very recently got me into mild trouble (HERE) from an author when I was reviewing his short stories in alphabetical order by title! Meanwhile, I can safely say that this chapter has established in my mind that this book is a genuine classic literary work of linguistic and social humour of the first water. It is literally unmissable, as we follow Winceworth (the man with a supposed lisp responsible, at a past version of the dictionary firm, for the letter S!) at a ‘do’ for his unlikeable colleague’s birthday party at that colleague’s own concocted 1500 mile club. Winceworth’s attempts to avoid small talk and his potentially romantic meeting with Sophia as hidden by a potted plant in the middle of the room is beyond simple high praise. It is solid gold.
    Looking at some of the more minor points – such as the ‘blarts of an oboe’ – I sort of tutted doubtfully, but then realised that ‘blarts’ was the perfect coinage, if coinage is what it is. Nervousness or flâneurie, this debate was taken out of my hands by the glorious analogy of eyebrow expressions as various accents above the letter o. And there is so much more I could tell you about from this chapter, but I will leave you to read it for yourself. Trust me, it IS that good.

  10. I

    Back to Mallory and her “sweet innocence”… no, not back to, but forward again to our age of digitising, and memories of her first mutual pick-up of Pip, Pip as a worthy word-conscious barista and now her Pip at home… pip pip, as agrupt a potential cheerio as my earlier reference (in my review’s first entry above) of some plot spoiler’s zebra?

  11. J

    “He dug his glasses into the bridge of his nose and winched his face to the sky, willing himself into wakefulness.”

    I am glad Winceworth temporarily failed thus to will himself in St Jame’s Park — armed with birthday cake residues in the aftermath of the party — as we would have missed reading the most astonishingly worded dreamstream-of-consciousness of dandelion and bird-seed sky that you will ever read in all literature. It seems to teem on and on with eventual surcease at something that I take not to be a dream at all, and if I tell you here about what he experienced for real after his dream, it would spoil your coming across it naturally in the course of your reading. All I can venture to say, as a hopefully illuminating aside, is that, ironically, Pelican paperbacks always contained pretty serious and sober non-fiction, with covers the blue colour of the sky… not screeching bird-swaddling green as the dust jacket of this book is!

  12. K

    Loved finding out – alongside Mallory – about the word ‘grawlix’. Just to return the favour, let it be known that I used the word ‘feministering’ a day or so ago to describe an ulcer (in my concurrent gestalt real-time-time review (here) of the recent ‘Big Book of Modern Fantasy’ (in which, caveat, I also happen to have an old story)).
    Meanwhile, this Eley Williams chapter addresses the nub of the nib that perpetrated history’s fake dictionary words which Mallory is so entertainingly investigating, but giving a viral dose of not so much earworms as brainwords!

  13. L

    …as if Sophia and Winceworth are grappling to transmute something as indigestible as dry non-fiction stuck in a book’s gullet into something digestibly malleable as this very fiction?

  14. M

    “‘— I resent alphabetical order,’ she said.”

    The concept of “being driven word-mad” is now easily empathisable by reading this chapter of Pip arriving at the office to help Mallory with mountweazel hunting! Still, I’ve been literally ‘word-mad’ for donkey’s years, but pleasing to see this concept now in print. One day, an official dictionary definition of this expression may be encouraged by using this book as the verifiable source? Also, not surprised there are lots of words configured upon ‘pelican’ discovered! To my mind, I shall now see this word as somehow configuring the abeyance-pouched differences between fiction and non-fiction, between verifiable truth in general and fake-news in particular, between a real word and a mountweazel, perhaps even between the nunnish penguin and the substance-regurgitating pelican itself!

  15. N

    “‘This is fiction!’ he wanted to shout. A fool’s errand, a wild goosechase!”

    Yet, I am delighted with this book’s witty truths oscillating between two periods of our land, lisp or no lisp. Now with Winceworth and Sophia in post-pelican aftermath, with synaesthetically precise details of love’s lexicography as well as of cakes and fine china. An admission – I had forgotten till now of the relationship between Sophia and Frasham! Am I barking or simply senile? Or, for the sake of reputational book-reviewing, am I exercising some adept zugzwang?

    “a special type of nothing-ing —“

    By the way, I once reviewed a short story entitled ZUGZWANG here.

  16. O

    “Right. From Sohnson. That’s a typo. Here we go. Johnson: ‘Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach,…’”

    …seems to be an example of my concept of meaningful typos!
    Meanwhile, Mallory engagingly narrates, amid their mountweazeling, the novelistic romcom of herself and Pip.
    With regard to the enticing conceits involved in mountweazelling, the flushing out of Winceworth’s ancient fakery (outwith The Intentional Fallacy, and they still don’t know it was Winceworth although we DO, omnisciently, as it were?), the mountweazelling’s coinspirancy — of ‘mystery in literature’ plus themes and variations upon ‘coming out’ — seems to summon again this quotation from the back of my mind: “Someone once said to me, and I suspect it was the Devil, ‘The great writers are those who don’t understand what they write; all the others are worthless.’” — Silvina Ocampo (‘The Topless Tower’), as also connected with the covidual need of a word, here, inter alia, “for the great kindness of people who, unseen, take care to release insects that are trapped in rooms.” — as I did, an hour ago, with a slug trapped in my kitchen.

  17. P

    “—to attempt to confine language is impossible […] like trapping butterflies under glass,”

    A train journey, and a moth trapped inside on a train window, a window with an ancient leather strap, the moth reaching the narrow open gap at the top but not seeing it and climbing down the glass, time and time again, makes a startling synchronous synergy with the trains that I just read about half an hour ago HERE, where trains try to escape their abandoned sidings on the same night as man first walked upon the moon….
    And the outcome of whichever “whumppp” gives beautiful context to Winceworth’s future motivation vis à vis our knowledge of his unrequited love for Sophia. Not jealousy so much as some instinctive steely righteous beauty of stoical resignation beyond words themselves.

  18. Q

    Queuing suspects, cuing guilt. A blurred glance at a window whence seasonal change can be scried by sight of leaves “whether rustling with raindrops or winter moths or nesting finches.” The concept of “choreographed floppage”, if not page flop, in the firm’s old framed photograph of staff giving us some hope that Pip and Mallory will track down the neologician of yore!
    This book gives me a good feeling. No wincing or cringing, no joy-decay, but simple spiritual uplift. Still not sure of the why or how. I’ll pin it down one day. Nail it to the mast of my book-reviewing.

  19. R

    R is also for Rapture, I say. An epiphany for me of this whole book, if not of my gestalt real-time of a lifetime’s ‘three ages’ as adumbrated in the right-hand side-bar of this very website where you read this. Just after writing synchronous words about an hour ago HERE (‘toward the preternatural power of a mind’s rewilding by literary imagination’) in connection with the Greg Bear story, and I have now discovered my literary hero of all time, i.e. Winceworth. His own epiphany and rapture as to his future course is a significant moment for me, confirming in hindsight much of what I believe and what I have already inadvertently practised over the years. There is so much I can quote from this chapter, and I am spoilt for choice, so I won’t quote anything on this occasion. This chapter is a tour de force. I cannot say that strongly enough. Meanwhile, this actual review entry on my part arguably is also my version of Winceworth’s “wink” in this chapter….not that I expect many people, if any, to hit on this book review, and so this particular wink on my part will remain my secret, just as Winceworth’s own wink was his secret. Winceworth’s secret, yes, but only within the fiction world where it happened. Many readers of this book will know, though.

  20. S

    “I will never guess the correct plural of lava right first time. It does not come easily. What does?”

    This chapter now represents an apoplectic apotheosis of word-madness, as Pip and Mallory wildly play with their favourite Sapphic words such as ‘cyprine’. Takes both women’s minds off the dictionary-hoaxer of yore, who they do not yet know as Winceworth. But not off today’s real-time hoaxer whose next dangerously insidious phone call is picked up by Pip, amid Mallory’s temporary lack of loving protectiveness for her…
    Perhaps, though, it is a different hoaxer altogether, like some book reviewer in disguise!

  21. T

    “He felt all vulnerability, vulning.”

    I won’t go into what goes on under the floorboards of the Scrivenery in my hero Winceworth’s day, for fear of plot spoilers.
    I will merely draw attention to one of my neoloquisms of expression all of which I linked to somewhere above, and that is ‘revelling in vulnerability’ – that I believe relevant to Winceworth. His fabricated lisp is only one example of his thus revelling. Anyway, the link that spires out from ‘revelling in vulnerability’ in that overall list no longer works. I can now find only one reference by me to this expression and it is here in 2010: http://www.ligotti.net/showpost.php?s=36fdd5bdb8aceb4b100c9ff43812dd7d&p=50623&postcount=11

  22. U

    He didn’t really hang up, then, Pip? Things are beginning to dawn on me about the intentions of the regular hoax caller to Mallory, as picked up by Pip today. I am always a bit slow. As slow as some dictionary words morphing over the years. My reviews are almost in retrocausal reverse! Or I simply don’t concentrate enough?

  23. V

    “Bedsheets, he thought, negate the need for time.”

    Well, after Winceworth’s action-packed Bloomsday at Barking etc etc, he fully deserved some rest. As well as what we would today call a co-vivid dream. A lucid, if mutant, recounting of his life today that we are allowed to co-opt. And later in the day there is the firm’s photograph. Beautifully set. POSSIBLE SPOILER: I wonder if Mallory, or even, Pip, at the window, is a reincarnation of Sophia? That thought is so far-fetched on my part, it ceases to be even a possible spoiler. Even so, this book veritably needs the famous Solar Pons as a detective to fathom it all. (Or the even more famous Father Brown? — my reviews, for those interested enough, of all the Father Brown stories: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/the-complete-father-brown-stories-g-k-chesterton/)

  24. W

    “I could recognise Pip’s cough from over 1,000 metres — another way of defining love —“

    Amid the denouement of mayhem. So many colours given here for flame, I wonder what type of colour is a plot twist? Vivid?

  25. X

    “She could walk as she pleased and treat the Scrivenery as if she had entered a cloister or a gallery depending on her mood, a grotto or an ossuary rather than hard-won glossary.”

    Post the group photograph outside, who can resist quoting that passage at least, inside, among so many other quotable quotes in this book? I sense that this wonderful character called, I infer, Sophia X is possibly what I thought when I mentioned reincarnation above! — judging by what I also infer about the party tonight to which she has just invited Winceworth?!
    I promise I will never divulge in this review, later, whether I was right or wrong.
    “Language never sleeps,” she opines, especially when she and others are eternally ‘cavorting’ with it in this wonderful book. Indeed, all the -ort words listed in this chapter are far more exciting than merely ‘sorting’ words!

  26. Y & Z

    “But, what happened?

    I have read these two final and momentous chapters together, about Mallory’s world and Winceworth’s, two different historical zones of time, and reviewing them in one go as many things I might say about them are in danger of becoming plot spoilers. Rest assured, these two chapters make a truly satisfying conclusion to what is undauntedly a classic work of literature, fit to stand by the likes of Tristram Shandy and Rameau’s Nephew. And also to stand by any great poetry/prose that makes play of word magic. A romcom, too, the meaninglessness of any job, even with a stake in conspiracies and hidden meanings. Here we also hear of secrets, we all have secrets, a Secretum if not a scrotum, references in both chapters to being “in plain sight”, and nudity “where the carnation appears”, and whatever hints you get from the gifted pawn and Sophia’s reference to Tartuffe. The generations of Tits, too, that probably know everything that happens and happened and will happen. Like where the ‘false entries’ are buried in life’s account book. Zugzwangs nested within each other like dolls.


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