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Review: The Liar's Dictionary

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

3/5 stars

You need to love learning about language and, more specifically, the etymology of words if you're going to enjoy this book. Luckily, I do. The book made me laugh, and I enjoyed being in the world of two lexicographers for a while. And some of the word play was really clever and fun! Take, for instance, the portmanteau word "procrastinattering," to describe when you're hanging around chatting with someone so as to avoid doing something else (like work). It's perfect!

The story follows two characters:

In the late 19th century, Winceworth is an employee for Swansby's New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, and one of many lexicographers working to compile entries for the dictionary. He's bored, quiet, and basically invisible to his coworkers, and spends his time creating new words for things he thinks there should be a word for.

In modern-day England, Mallory is the last remaining employee of the now-infamous Swansby's. The dictonary's production having been halted by WWI, it remained incomplete, and David Swansby (the sole Swansby heir) is determined to finish the tome and see it digitized. Mallory is tasked with weeding out the mysterious fabricated words, all written in the same handwriting (and actually quite useful, some of them!).

Along the way there are love interests, criminal behavior, fake lisps, betrayals, who-dunnit mysteries, and some delightful descriptions of fellow coworkers (like "The Condiments" to refer to two identical twin sisters, one with "salt" and one with "pepper" hair color).

Williams geeks out hard about lexicology and lexicography. She noted in an interview that while writing this novel, she had "just finished a PhD about dictionaries and their relationship to fiction and ‘fictitiousness’, concentrating on false entries in dictionaries and encyclopaedias” ... so, clearly she's quite invested in the world to words. It was mostly fun, diving into that world along with her. However, I found the narration tedious at times - a little overly appreciative of it's own wit. But I think that kind of comes with the territory of being pedantic.

At any rate, I enjoyed the journey, and if you like thinking about language and where it comes from, you will as well.

Thanks to Claire for sending me this one!


UP NEXT: The Mystery of Three Quarters, by Sophie Hannah

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