The Liar’s Dictionary
“Mallory’s job is to answer daily phone calls from a stranger threatening to blow the building up; the rest of the time she passes flicking through the dictionary.“
What is a fake word? What does it mean to make a word up, especially if it looks right, or perfectly fills a language gap, or has the pretence of an etymology, a Latin or Greek shadow that looks like it could be uncovered by a diligent enough linguist? All words are made up, after all – it might be a myth that Shakespeare coined 1,400 words but someone has to be the first one to use them. Meanings change; language is fluid.
Eley Williams’s debut novel The Liar’s Dictionary expands on the interest in words and wordplay demonstrated in her 2017 prize-winning collection of short stories Attrib. and other Stories in exploring these questions. It tells two intertwined stories. In the present we have Mallory, an intern for a man named David Swansby. David is futilely working to update and digitalize the Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary: the brainchild of his ‘bewhiskered great-grandfather’ which was initially interrupted ‘when its lexicographers were called up and killed en masse in the First World War.’
Abandoned and unused, it has no legacy other than incompleteness – Mallory, mostly uninterested in the task, thinks of it as ‘an appropriate memorial to a generation cut short… a sad, hollow, joyless joke’ – but David is nevertheless insistent on bringing it into the 21st century. Mallory’s job is to answer daily phone calls from a stranger threatening to blow the building up; the rest of the time she passes flicking through the dictionary.
Eventually, she gets tasked with something else: tracking down mountweazels. These are traditionally false words inserted into a dictionary as a sort of intellectual property safeguard – a quick way of working out if another lexicographer has plagiarised your work – but the Swansby, it turns out, is infested with them, all apparently the work of one errant employee.
That employee is Peter Winceworth, the subject of the alternating chapters. It is 1899 and he is working on words beginning with ‘S’, falling in love with his colleague’s erstwhile fiancée, and attending therapy for a lisp he does not have. He invents words because he is bored, but also because to do so is enticing: ‘He could define parts of the world that only he could see or for which he felt responsible.’ Mallory and her girlfriend Pip track down most of them, but only the reader, moving between the two storylines, can understand the drive behind the new coinages. They become inside jokes that Mallory cannot understand, but we can.
Who, then, is the titular liar? Winceworth’s mountweazels might be lies about words, but they do make sense – both to him and to us. Is the anonymous phone caller a liar? Mallory, it transpires, is not out at work – is that a lie? Can both an inclusion and an omission be a lie? If searching for the answers to human uncertainties by crystallising them in definitions is ‘like trapping butterflies under glass,’ the beating of Williams’ words against the pages is anything but: these words are playfully free.
Words: Alice Wickenden