The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

My friend Joan Beck recommended this book to me, and I’m glad she did. She knows I love words. She knows that because she loves them, too. And this is a book for word lovers. It’s a lexicographer’s novel.

Ever since Dr. Samuel Johnson published his influential dictionary in 1755, the fascination with dictionaries and word meanings has grown among English speakers. Perhaps the most famous ongoing effort, begun at the beginning of the 20th century, is the Oxford English Dictionary – the OED – which continues to be the standard for the language to this day. In the late 1970’s I joined the Book of the Month Club so I could get a free copy of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It came with a magnifying glass and it is still open on a dictionary stand in our study.

The Liar’s Dictionary is about the made-up Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, begun at the end of the 19th of century, never completed, and supposedly published once around 1930. When it began it had a huge staff of lexicographers all writing definitions and etymology on index cards to be sorted alphabetically and eventually printed. This fascinating novel follows one of the first staff people as he works on the book and alternately about a young woman who is one of the only two people left working on it in the 21st century. The last Swansby in charge is wanting to scan the book for a last attempt at publication. But they discover that someone one hundred years before had inserted made-up words into the whole operation. So it becomes the job of Mallory to go through the whole dictionary and find all the invented words.

The story is way more complex than all that, and the word play is amazing. And it is laugh aloud funny in many places. I once played a game of Scrabble with a friend where we decided to only use words that aren’t words, but had to follow all the rules that make words words. Harder than it sounds, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly. P. Winceworth finds that to be the case in 1899 as he inserts fake word after fake word into Swansby’s dictionary. And a lot of other things happen along the way.

The stories around dictionary creation are fascinating. Watch the movie The Professor and the Madman on Netflix, or read Simon Winchester’s 1999 book of the same title. But in the meantime you can get hooked on words in the sometimes true, sometimes false, world of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary.

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