On the power and responsibility of dictionaries

We collect dictionaries in this house. Actually, Ms. Ninja collects them and my job is to sort through other books to give away to make room. Ms. Ninja likes to argue that she is multi-lingual and may need them for writing in other languages, and I’m all like, Well, then how multi-lingual are you, fancypants? But then she swears at me in Hungarian, German, French, Spanish, etc. and I just respond in English.

I love that it’s a tradition in dictionaries to have a fake entry. It’s right in my wheelhouse. And in turn, I also love entirely fake dictionaries like The Meaning of Lif, by Douglas Adams, and The Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce. I have even been keeping a list of my own neologisms for possible publication one day (I think I might be the one who invented the term “Douché”. I can’t find any use of it from before my use back when. It’s “what one says when one has been bested in an argument by an asshole.” It was on Bookninja decades ago. Now its on t-shirts. Poets are shitty businessfolk.)

This woman has made an academic and creative career of the entire world of dictionaries.

Eley Williams has always loved dictionaries. That love shone throughout her dazzling, acrobatic 2017 collection, Attrib. and Other Stories, which savoured words and wordplay with an irresistible enthusiasm. The debut catapulted its tiny publisher, Influx, on to prize lists and heralded the arrival of a singular new voice.

It all dates back to her childhood, when Williams’s family kept a pile of dictionaries by the kitchen table. “Once you start looking words up it’s very easy to ricochet from column to column, falling down a rabbit hole … I got ‘precocious’ in a school report and I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. I thought it was probably a very good thing.” She continued to ricochet around the columns throughout her school years, even starting her own dictionary of neologisms as a teenager, inspired by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s The Meaning of Liff. As time went on, she became more and more fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of a branch of knowledge that sets out to fix and codify meaning. “The concept is so ambitious … there’s something humane and sympathetic in the fact that we’ll always fall short, but something extraordinary in that we’d ever attempt it.” She wrote a PhD about fictitious entries in dictionaries, part of which has become her eagerly awaited debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, out this month.

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