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The Liar's Dictionary

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  717 ratings  ·  221 reviews
An exhilarating and laugh-out-loud debut novel from a prize-winning new talent which chronicles the misadventures of a lovelorn Victorian lexicographer and the young woman put on his trail a century later to root out his misdeeds while confronting questions of her own sexuality and place in the world.

Mountweazel n. the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries an
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published January 5th 2021 by Doubleday Books (first published July 16th 2020)
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Soon after I started this novel I realized that I am probably not the intended audience. I’ve never been the dictionary consultant type. My best friend and high school desk mate was. She used to write her literature essays with the Romanian dictionary on the table, researching the most sophisticated words and phrases to express her ideas. Me, I always preferred the more direct approach. Although I am more of a numbers girl, I still got top marks at literature but mostly for being clear and conci ...more
Gumble's Yard
May 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020
Wonderfully (adv.): “in a way that inspires delight or admiration; extremely well”

Whimsical: (adj): "(1) playfully quaint or fanciful, especially in an appealing and amusing way"

Wordsmithery (noun): from the Urban Dictionary: "The awesome ability to bring words together to make something magical"

Williams (author): previously author of Attrib. my book of 2017 in the Guardian (

Winner (deservedly): of the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize (for which I was
Sep 30, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Delightful novel dealing with words, definitions, allusions and meditations of language
narration combines in a funny way between a lexicographer from Nineteenth century and an intern at the present.. both of them work in Swansby's Dictionary
of course dictionaries are valuable but regardless of all its definitions, the daily life still full of vague, elusive and undefined meanings

Elyse  Walters
Jan 06, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I started this review earlier- debated on posting it given how shocking & devastating today’s events have been —
the domestic attack on The White House.
Sad and outraged....
But here little teaser review: ( this was a unique creative book)

The alphabet never looked so visionary......@
Galvanic .....sycophantic .....
idiosyncratic ..... melange .....
sidesplitting ..... methodical ..... amour-propre
..... buffoonery ..... smoldering
..... bonzer ..... jubilant .....
Jul 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2020, modern-lit
I have been looking forward to reading more by Eley Williams since reading her wonderful short story collection Attrib. and other stories shortly before it won the Republic of Consciousness Prize. This, her first novel, meets the same very high standards, and is a very entertaining piece of storytelling set in the eccentric world of lexicography.

The premise is that an encyclopaedic dictionary, started in late Victorian times and published incomplete shortly after to the First World War, is being
lark benobi
Aug 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Yay! Yay! Yay!

The Liar's Dictionary is so entertaining, so riveting, and above all so attentive to language, that reading it felt like I was in the presence of a virtuoso performer of an instrument called Language. Williams set an audacious goal for herself, here, when she made the underlying premise of her novel be the search for precision in language/meaning. With this as her premise, she needed to write in a narrative voice equal to the task--to write in precisely the right words, one after t
Paul Fulcher
Feb 14, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: net-galley, 2020
Eley Williams’ quite brilliant Attrib, published by Influx Press, won the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize – I was privileged to be a member of the jury that awarded the prize to a unique collection of short stories, which stood out for its love of, and innovative use of, language, itself often associated with the love of a partner. The citation on the Prize’s website reads:

In his review of the book in the LRB, Michael Hofmann called Attrib. the work of an “Alphabetophile”; these love letter
May 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020
I am indebted to the interview here for helping me to get my thoughts in order. And to Paul for sending me that link while I was reading the book (I guess there’s a chance I would have found it myself when I started scouring the Internet, but he saved me a lot of time).

In the interview, Eley Williams says

”When tinkering with the first draft, I’d also just finished a PhD about dictionaries and their relationship to fiction and ‘fictitiousness’, concentrating on false entries in dictionaries and e
Nov 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
What word nerd could possibly resist a novel about mountweasels within a dictionary? Creative nonsense words with perfectly legitimate definitions are rebelliously inserted into the fictional Swansby’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary by lexicographer Winceworth in 1899. Brilliant name for this character, too. A present-day lexicographer is tasked with ferreting out these offending inaccuracies for digitization of the dictionary.

This is a playful word romp probing the fluidity of language and its co
Aug 02, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: best-of-2015, brits

a false entry in a dictionary or other reference work planted as a trap for plagiarists

It's that time of year again: in September, at least in times that are not extraordinary, the barn of the medieval castle just down the road here has a second hand book fair which gives me the opportunity to empty out the groaning shelves and make a contribution towards the upkeep of their museum. I do try to consider what might actually sell, rather than just take up room in the remainder box. So
Jul 15, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Liar’s Dictionary is award-winning writer Eley Williams’s debut novel and is very much a polarising book you'll either love or hate. Whilst it didn't have me quite as enamoured as I had hoped, overall I found it a compelling, profoundly original and a delightfully charming tale from opening pages right through to denouement. It should be every word, language and/or dictionary enthusiasts dream but it isn't quite as straightforward as that as there isn't much of a real plot as Williams makes ...more
Jul 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Liar : a person who tells lies

In Eley Williams debut novel, the concept of the liar plays an integral part in the narrative. In an odd way it’s not actually people who tell lies, as the above definition states but rather people who live a life under the guise of lying.

The book is separated into two timelines. The first one takes place in the present and focuses on Mallory, an intern who works at Swansby House, a place famous for publishing the New Encyclopaedic Dictionary . The problem is that a
John Banks
Dec 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

What a delightfully wonderful read. Filled with playfully exuberant writing, this tale of two lexicographers separated by a century and connected by Swansby's New Encyclopaedic Dictionary shares some special insights about the deep relationships among language, creativity and our humanity. And along the way the reader will savior a good few stunningly gorgeous passages.

The two central characters are Peter Winceworth (in the final year of the 19th century) and Mallory, a young woman in contem
Roman Clodia
This loading hourglass, though. A further pair of pixels was suspended in the centre of the graphic to imply that sand was falling - as one watched the screen, this hourglass would swivel on its axis as if tipped and re-tipped by an unseen moderator's fingers. Everybody knows this. Why am I explaining hourglasses to myself? Proximity to encyclopaedic dictionaries made me a bore.

Hmm, sorry, but yes: why is the modern-day narrator Mallory explaining the Windows hourglass to us, and even more s
Eric Anderson
Nov 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Most debut novels commonly focus on autobiographical experience and while I know nothing about Eley Williams' background I wouldn't be surprised if this gifted author grew up between the covers of a giant dictionary. “The Liar's Dictionary” is quite literally the story of two lexicographers who both work for Swansby's New Encyclopedic Dictionary but their lives are separated by a century. While this might not sound like the most thrilling basis for a story, there's such charm, humour, warmth and ...more
Ari Levine
Terribly twee even for me, and I'm a member of its intended in-group, as a bespectacled and tweed-encrusted academic who's rather enamored of erudite wordplay, linguistic parlor games, and cryptic crosswords. Emotionally insubstantial and besotted with its own cleverness, and only readable in small doses. Or maybe I just wasn't in much of a ludic mood for light entertainment, given the general Chernobyl-type atmosphere at present.

Thanks to NetGalley and Doubleday for providing me with a free ARC
Jun 10, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, netgalley
While I was not quite as enamoured of this as other readers appear to be, I expect this book will find many fans among linguists and linguaphiles alike; Eley Williams has written a book about words and language which could only have been written by someone who wholly shares the love of words held by its characters.

The novel is split across two narratives: one in the present day where we follow Mallory, an intern at the Swansby Dictionary who has been tasked with finding all of the made-up or fal
Sep 17, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Liar’s Dictionary is the first novel by British author, Eley Williams. In the final years of the nineteenth century, Peter Winceworth relieves the boredom of his work as a lexicographer on Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary by fabricating his own words and definitions for things he believes need one: certain feelings, sensations, emotions, acts, concepts, qualities that are, heretofore, not succinctly expressed.

Peter isn’t nearly as passionate about his work as some of his colleagues, a
Linguistic onanism (n.): the act of writing purely for the joy of stringing together beautiful phrases

Narrative solipsism (n.): writing that gives dimension to the narrators only, making all other characters in the story appear unreal

Lexicophilic narration (n.): writing that is deliberately sprinkled with obscure and archaic term, prompting the reader to consume the text with a dictionary in hand

I had high hopes for this novel after enjoying Ely William’s much lauded short story collection Attr
Jan 20, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: arc, netgalley, 2021
“I need to talk to you about mountweazels.”
Mountweazels,” I repeated.
“There are mistakes. In the dictionary,” he said. There seemed to be a sob edging the softness of his voice. I stared at him. He assumed a defensive tone. “Well. Not mistakes. Notquite mistakes. They’re words that are meant to be there but not meant to be there.”
Mountweazels,” I repeated again.
“Other dictionaries have them! Most!” David Swansby said. “They’re made-up words.”
“All words are made up,” I said.
“That is true,”
Jul 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was wonderful for anyone who loves words and linguistics plus good storytelling. I could have spent many hours looking up definitions and checking which words were real and which fabricated. I found each of the stories compelling, although as a lover of historical fiction, my heart lay with Winceworth’s story. Many thanks to Netgalley for an arc of this book.
Esther King
Jul 15, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you have a resounding love of words- of their nuances, ins-and-Outs, bits and pieces, etymology, and every other single thing about them, this book is going to be right up your alley. It's padded with definitions, lyrical sentences, definitions, the obscure, and the idea of words themselves. It's all examined, reading almost in part as a love-letter to the English language, but also as a character-driven study of human interactions and relationships. It balances these two things masterfully, ...more
Chris Haak
May 17, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Brilliant how these two narratives are being interwoven and the plot develops! I like the structure and how the book is alphabetically organized, I love the interest and love for words, language and 'mountweazels,' and the characters are great. Wonderful novel!
Thank you Random House UK and Netgalley for the ARC.
Michael Ewins
On paper (but where else?), The Liar’s Dictionary sounds like a my ideal novel. A narrative spun around the codification, culpability, and coercion of language! A thriller about the foundation and dissolution of an English dictionary! Even the McGuffin, those pesky mountweazels, wrinkle the tongue pleasingly!

I was so excited to read this novel, but much like a Swansby's dictionary left forever incomplete, The Liar's Dictionary just kept unspooling and digressing until an abrupt finale. There are
Kim Lockhart
I couldn't decide whether to round up or down. I wish there were a 3.5 ⭐ rating available. The story is fun, and often raucous. The wordplay is fascinating. I've always enjoyed linguistics, definitions, and etymology. One of the main two characters is much more enjoyable than the other. It made me wince that a main character would pretend to have a speech impediment, even if he did live over 100 years ago. There's even a major event in his life which he could have used to pretend that the trauma ...more
Aug 28, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: borrowed, august-2020
I have wanted to read Eley Willams' debut short story collection, Attrib., since it was first published, but have been unable to find a copy. I was delighted, therefore, when I was able to find her first novel, The Liar's Dictionary, in my local library.

The Liar's Dictionary tells two parallel stories, which revolve around the creation and revision of an unfinished dictionary, Swansby's New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. The first of these stories takes place in 1899, where Peter Winceworth is 'toil
Sep 05, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Liar’s Dictionary isn’t perfect, it’s overly-dense, the slightly-abstract, fragmented preface doesn’t really work as a framing device for Eley Williams’s story, and the two distinct, but linked, narratives at its heart don’t always sit well together. But still I enjoyed this immensely, like her marvellous, more balanced, collection Attrib and Other Stories, Williams is absorbed in questions around language and communication here; she draws on a wealth of material from the history of dictiona ...more
(3.5) Mallory is five years into an internship at Swansby House, the London headquarters of Swansby’s dictionary. The dictionary is known for being unfinished – too many of its lexicographers left for WWI and never returned – and for having made-up words. In 1899, Peter Winceworth, the butt of jokes among his colleagues, started composing mountweazels (fake entries) and inserting them into the dictionary. In the contemporary story line, Mallory’s job is to remove the mountweazels as the dictiona ...more
Possibly in Michigan, London
I really enjoyed this at first but think all the issues I had with Attrib are here on a bigger scale - an emotional monotone, heavily-worn research...I love words and etymology too but for something of novel length there also needs to be characterisation and focus.
Aug 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I hadn’t read Williams’s debut story collection, Attrib., but everyone I knew who did read it thought it was fantastic. The Liar’s Dictionary is a dual-timeline novel set in the offices of an eccentric fourth-rate enyclopaedic dictionary in the present day, and during its heyday a little over a hundred years ago. Our contemporary protagonist, closeted-at-work intern Mallory, never becomes aware of the identity of perpetually-belittled Peter Winceworth, but his lasting contribution to the diction ...more
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