Tale of flawed fictional dictionary a delight


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Orbisculate: to accidentally squirt citrus fruit juice and/or pulp into one’s eye.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/03/2021 (672 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Orbisculate: to accidentally squirt citrus fruit juice and/or pulp into one’s eye.

This immensely useful word is not really a word. At least not yet. The word was coined by Neil Kreiger, who died of COVID-19 complications in 2020.

In an act of memorialization, Kreiger’s family are promoting the word (via, trying to attract both new users and, importantly, the attention of lexicographers. The more widely “orbisculate” is used, the more likely it is to earn a place on dictionary pages.

But what if a lexicographer, instead of monitoring and documenting language use, was inspired to invent words? And what if that lexicographer began to slip his own words into a dictionary, securing them validation that they may deserve but have not earned?

In a wonderful new novel, British author Eley Williams tells the stories of two people whose lives are shaped by Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a fictional and flawed rival of the Oxford English Dictionary. Winceworth, a lexicographer for Swansby’s, works in a great hive of an office in late-Victorian London.

A first-generation employee, he contributes to the dictionary at an early stage in its history. Before it can be completed, the dictionary project will stall, halted by the First World War. When it is published in 1930, in nine volumes, the Z-words remain undefined.

Winceworth is far from happy in his job. Writing with a company-supplied, regulation dip pen on regulation paper slips, he endures the grind of office culture, resenting both the empty chatter of his coworkers and the predictability of their behaviour. He also suffers through company-prescribed speech-therapy sessions for a lisp that, revealingly, he fakes.

Mallory, a century later, works in the same office building. The only employee of the company in its dying days, she is a skeptical witness to a slow-moving effort to digitize the still incomplete Swansby’s dictionary.

Her storyline explores the small indignities of her own era’s version of low-paid, precarious office work: from inherited keyboards discolored with past users’ finger grime to reheated lunches eaten while standing in a supply closet.

And the closet is a fitting place for readers to encounter Mallory. Though partnered with Pip, a proudly out gay woman, Mallory hides her sexual identity, passing Pip off as a roommate.

Their relationship grows in importance to Mallory, and to the narrative, as the novel progresses.

Both Winceworth and Mallory are fascinated by language, and The Liar’s Dictionary will delight readers who share this interest. The novel’s preface — which is, fittingly and intriguingly, a preface about dictionary prefaces — is so beautifully written and engaging that the extraordinary novel that follows feels almost like a bonus feature.

Though enamored with language, there is nothing pretentious or pompous about this book. The importance of animals to Williams’ book hints at its energy and humour. An imaginary tiger named Mr. Grumps, generations of standoffish office cats, a speech pathologist’s boisterous caged bird: Williams’ non-human characters don’t need words to express themselves. The novel features what is surely English literature’s most memorable depiction of a pelican: a very big bird experiencing a ludicrous crisis in an absurdly serene St. James Park.

Cassiculation: “sensation of walking into spider silk, diaphanous unseen webs, etc.” Featuring this and other wonderful words, both those of Winceworth and those of his creator, The Liar’s Dictionary is a delight. It deserves a readership as numerous and diverse as the entries in the imaginary dictionary it portrays.

Vanessa Warne teaches Victorian literature at the University of Manitoba.

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