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I love language. I am effervescent in its multitudes.  I rejoice, exclaim, wallow, and exult in the verisimilitude of the vernacular. I delight in dialects, pontificate on puns, saturate in slang, and generally gestate in grammar. Often, I have been accused of using ten words when three would do, because why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to run wild with syntactic abandon when given the chance?

 

Of particular interest to me is the history of language. Where do our words come from? How has time and history and culture shaped the way the world pushes air out of its throat and rolls it across its tongue. It’s all well and good for the Académie française to try to keep French on the straight and narrow. But what about English, who is more likely to push another language into a dark alley and “borrow” some loan words? And it still comes out short compared to German, which produces words like Treppenwitz, literally “stair case joke”, for the comeback to a joke or insult that you don’t think of until later.

 

Reading for me can be a laborious task, as I’ll be working merrily through a text when suddenly I’m jolted out of the narrative by an errant word. What is this delightful collection of syllables, I’ll think? What precise congress of meanings have crafted such an expression? And off I’ll pop to look up its etymology. And where better to start than that trusted friend, the dictionary?

 

In the world of words, consistency of meaning is key to understanding. If we don’t all agree that the word “horse” means a large, four legged mammal with a long face and mane, then a trip to the farm is going to get very confusing very quickly. Enter the Dictionary, that compendium of terminology which keeps us on the same page. A concise definition of every word in the language. A thing of beauty.

 

But definition is only half the work. The other half is context. Knowing not just what a word means, but when it is appropriate to use are the cardinal ingredients in a delicious language recipe (garnished liberally with grammar, of course). Which is why dictionaries include something that you may have overlooked, or don’t pay that much attention to: an example of use. For examples, From the Collins Dictionary:

 

Certificate - An official document that you receive when you have completed a course of study or training. The qualification that you receive is sometimes also called a certificate. Ex. To the right of the fireplace are various framed certificates.

 

One person who didn’t overlook these snippets of speech was author Jez Burrows, who developed an ambitious plan: to write short stories comprised of just the example lines from dictionaries. To hear him tell it, he started by compiling a massive catalogue of every example line from a range of dictionaries, then sorted them into groups, including those that feature a person doing an action, or emoting, or the rarest of all, speaking. Treasured were sentences describing the condition of an object.

 

Taking all these disconnected, brief and context-lacking lines, Jez strung them together into short tales of absurdity, suspense, and melancholic beauty. What were once pieces of linguistic illustration become “I began to speak, but stopped short at the look on the other woman's face. It was not prudent to antagonize a hired killer.” Those line comprised of entries from the Collins English Dictionary and New Oxford American Dictionary.

 

I am in love with this idea. Creating a jigsaw of story from the leavings of language; putting to work the orphans of description. These brief lines, once stagnating on the dictionary page have found bizarre and unexpected new purpose under Jez’s direction. It seems to me to be a form of linguistic collage, part and parcel with gluing sea shells and pine cones onto a picture frame. This concept seems tailor made for the era of Twitter and the character limit, but Jez has collected his foundlings and knitted them together into a tome entitled Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings.

 

A brisk read, but surprisingly soulful and elegant, and a love letter to language. A perfect companion to a snowy winter evening, or to share betwixt friends. A meal made of morsels has never tasted as sweet or been as filling. More about Jez and his work is available at http://www.dictionarystories.com/.

 

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Yours, Fictionally

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