Books

FEATURE: The Meaninglessness of Verbosity: Meditations on The Deeper Meaning of Liff by John Lloyd and Douglas Adams (1983)

The English language is made up of an absolutely unnecessarily large number of words, many of which have letters chucked into them with an arrogant complexity like the ‘g’ and ‘h’ of light instead of a basic ‘e’ at the end to soften the ‘t’; some words sound the same but have multiple meanings and spellings (to, too, two, tu – ‘tu’ as in Tesco’s clothing brand, as if things weren’t complicated enough). And then there their they’re are those words used by people like Russel Brand which only 0.0001% of the literate population can understand making them utterly useless to anyone who is not them – words like hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobic (the fear of long words).

There is the language of Law with its overuse of Latin terms which is intended to be incomprehensible to unlearned criminals and non-classically educated plebs, thus giving lawyers a higher prosecution rate. There are French words brought over by the Norman conquestors and, latterly, the French cuisine mob headed by the Roux brothers and their family. There are German words brought over by Saxon invaders and, latterly, the Saxe-Coburg-Goethe family, aka The Windsors, aka your beloved fart-loving royal family. There are Scandinavian words brought over ‘ere by those raping, pillaging IKEA shop people. On top of this lexicographic gallimaufry, the young of every generation insist on creating their own pseudo language, typically by reducing already existing language down to abbreviations and symbols and grunts, or by taking already existing words and applying new, hip (incorrect) meanings to them in a desperate and futile attempt to appear rebellious.


With all of this vocabularic vascularity in mind, the only reasonable thing to do in this situation is to add more words to the already severely overpopulated language in order to push it to its limits before setting free a deadly word virus with the intention of wiping out all the weaker words in one fell swoop.


And that was the unnecessarily long introduction to a relatively insignificant book from the realm of British comedy called The Meaning of Liff, or, as per the edition we have here, The Deeper Meaning of Liff (1990)) by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd. The subheading to The Meaning of Liff (and its later Deeper edition) is “a dictionary of things that there aren’t any words for yet”.


Contrary to the rambling introduction, the English language apparently has a sort of Boötes Void in it, existing somewhere outside the last page of the Oxford Dictionary of English (the enormous word-universe-sized one). Within that void Adams and Lloyd discovered a cluster of solely comedic words for things that no one even knew needed defining. Lloyd and Adams are the Edwin Hubbles of English comedy language – or maybe that should be the Hubblesque lexicographers of comedy… in English. Or whatever. They describe their book most effectively in the preface for the first edition, 1983:


“In Life (and, indeed in Liff) there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situation and even objects which we all know and recognise, but for which no words exist. On the other hand, the world is littered with thousands of words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places. Our job, as we see it, is to get these words down off the signposts and into the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep in everyday conversation and start making a positive contribution to society.” (1990: p.vii)


Some of the choicest words from The Deeper Meaning of Liff, chosen pretty much at random, are as follows:

Goginan (n.): The piece of Elastoplast on a short-sighted person’s glasses.

Droitwich (n.): a street dance. The two partners approach from opposite directions and try to politely get out of each other’s way. They step to the left, step to the right, apologise, step to the left again, bump into each other and repeat as often as is unnecessary.

Oundle (vb.): to walk along leaning sideways, with one arm hanging limp and dragging one leg behind the other. Most commonly used by actors in amateur productions of Richard III, or by people carrying a heavy suitcase in one hand.

Brompton (n.): a brompton is that which is said to have been committed when tou are convinced you are about to blow off with a resounding trumpet noise in a public place and all that actually slips out is a tint ‘pfpt’.

Smyrna (n.): The expression on one’s face after a joke has gone down rather well.

Farrancassidy (n.): a long and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to undo someone’s bra.

Ugglebarnby (n.): The ponytail affected by a idle-aged balding man.

Tukituki (n.): A sexual liaison which is meant to be discrete but which is in fact common knowledge.

In an upcoming interview with Capers Magazine, the great British novelist Will Self told us that his favourite funny words are the ones which are made-up. Roald Dahl, perhaps Britain’s greatest ever children’s writer, made up hundreds of words for his works… There seems to be something magical about moving outside the parameters of correct language and vocabulary, heading off into the Boötes Void of words or further afield into the undiscovered areas of lexicological space.


I am a member of a Facebook for writers in which novelists and the like can ask questions about their work and have other members give them advice or opinions. The number of questions on there regarding “am I allowed to use” this or that word to begin a sentence, or “what is the correct amount of words for a paragraph”, and so on, is just depressing. There are no rules to art. There are rules to answer questions in tests made up by people who are not in the least bit artistic or creatively intelligent, but not in art.


Let yourself go, clear your mind, open your mouth and let out a noise that seems to fit what you’re trying to say – you big, silly … Sshwammertitterer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s