Mountweazel n. the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.
The Liar’s Dictionary is the brilliant tale of an eccentric Victorian lexicographer who inserts false entries into a dictionary as a way of asserting his artistic freedom and (a century later) the young, overworked intern tasked with rooting out these mountweazels before digitizing the dictionary. This clever, laugh-out-loud debut is the perfect choice to jump start those reading goals and our Discover pick for January. Here, author Eley Williams discusses the inspiration for her novel and vocabulary acquisition as a kind of hopeful dating pool.
Sometimes the effort of finding the ‘right’ word can feel like a physical process rather than anything to do with memory. Notions of the semantic and the somatic blur a little during these moments. We might mime along as we search for this word or perform little pantomimes of searching with our hands. The metaphors we use for finding a particular word are often to do with forms of reaching and handling as if an errant word is something textured and tactile and misplaced: it is as such that words can be just beyond our grasp or on the tip of our tongues — the shape of a word, or its length, or the flavor of its etymology might occur to us in feints or hints but can’t quite be pinned down.
There is, of course, a word for ‘an inability to remember the proper word’: it is first recorded in the 1915 edition of Dorland’s American Illustrated Medical Dictionary. We discover that this has been given the term lethologica. I first came across this word thanks to the UK-based writer Oli Hazzard, who uses it as a title for a poem. It featured a page-long list of obscure words’ definitions rearranged out of alphabetical order to suggest new narrative possibilities: ‘the act of opening a bottle with a saber / the habit of dropping in at mealtimes / the act of killing every twentieth person’. I thought lethologica was a rather marvelous, useful word, and promptly forgot all about it. The irony is not lost on me.
It may be that we have not met the right word yet but, if we’re lucky, it might come along soon: vocabulary acquisition as a kind of hopeful dating pool, or an exercise for discerning collectors. Coming to terms (as it were) with this involves a certain amount of humility and an awareness of one’s own limited experiences of language. The hope has to be that we are deferring a moment of joyful recognition when the ‘right’ word crops up in an article or book or a dictionary: the right word was here all along, just waiting to be found.
But what if it’s left up to you to bring that word into being? What if the only way to ‘find’ the right word is to create it yourself? How might you go about creating such a neologism to plug a lexical gap? In my novel, a character working at a dictionary realizes that it is in his power to create new words but that such an impulse may run counter to his duty to ‘register’ language. In a world where meaninglessness and nonsense can be mischievous and terrifying in equal measure, what possibilities does this mean for a curious lexicographer who is out to cause trouble? And what is at stake when we attempt to define our world with our own words?