Book Review: Fifty Words for Snow

Fifty Words for Snow, by Nancy Campbell, is a beautifully produced book containing an eclectic mix of history, myth and anecdote. Structured into fifty short chapters, each preceded by an illustration of a snowflake, the author travels the world to explore how snow has impacted the lives of diverse cultures. She digs into the etymology of indigenous languages as well as musing on how incomers have shaped changes in vocabulary. While there are many references to climate change, the narrative avoids polemic.

The transformative powers of snow are wide ranging. Within the varied chapters the author looks at a snowfall’s sound, shape, texture and colour. She explains where and why phenomena happen and how, over time, people have adapted to the challenges wrought. Also included are the fun side of snow – from the origins of skiing and snowboarding to the joy to be garnered from creating a snow angel.

“This time, the marks we humans leave behind will last only as long as the snow itself”

Many landscapes around the world have been carved by glaciers. Snow can bring forth life but also cause death due to factors such as cold and avalanche. Readers will learn of: a mountain that has never been climbed, the rules of using an ice road in Estonia, where snow may be found in Hawaii, how a snow shower inspired the building of a basilica. There are also details on how to build an igloo and on how an arctic whale hunters ship was traditionally constructed. Snow can be a shroud, a playground or provide shelter. It is a source of life giving water and an inspiration for art.

The text is blue on white, the illustrations white on blue. These aesthetics are notable and fitting, adding to the pleasure of perusal. This is a book that may best be enjoyed by dipping into rather than read in a lengthy sitting. It contains much of interest without going into great detail.

A reminder that natural phenomena should be respected, often defying attempts by man to exert control. A light yet informative look at snow’s influence. A gentle warning of the damage caused when nature’s cycle is eroded.

Fifty Words for Snow is published by Elliott & Thompson.


Book Review: The Liar’s Dictionary

“To name a thing is to know a thing. There’s power there.”

The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams, is framed around two timelines. It is a love story of sorts alongside a modern day mystery, set in the headquarters of a London based publishing company. The writing is razor sharp and flashing with humour. The plays on words and their ever changing meanings add zest to the wry depiction of characters’ foibles and failings.

The contemporary timeline focuses on a young intern named Mallory. She is the only employee at what remains of Swansby’s Publishing – besides the owner and editor, David Swansby. Mallory’s job includes answering the telephone – fielding daily calls from a person threatening to blow up the building, a person who claims to want her dead.

After a few weeks at Swansby’s, Mallory is given a task in addition to her work looking over David’s efforts at digitising the contents of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. She is to seek out mountweasels – fake entries sometimes inserted in text to protect copyright. David has come to fear that, for unknown reasons, his dictionary may contain an unusually large number of these inventions. He wishes Mallory to delve into the archives in hope of discovering a link between them, or even a list, that the made-up words may be removed from the online edition.

The earlier timeline is set in Swansby’s Publishing’s heyday, at the end of the nineteenth century. It opens with Peter Winceworth – a lexicographer currently working on words beginning with the letter S – attending his company mandated elocution lesson. Peter has a lisp – except he doesn’t really. For no good reason that he can explain, he manufactured this fake speech impediment in childhood. His penultimate elocution lesson is taking place in the shadow of a raging hangover. Peter will go on to have a particularly strange day.

Mallory lives with Pip – a lover she describes as her flatmate when Pip meets David during a bomb scare. Peter is also in the throes of a romantic entanglement. He met Sophia at the previous night’s party and, unusually, found he could talk and she would listen. These two couples and their relationships weave through the story of Swansby’s dictionary. The absurdities of working life, and limitations people accept, are excavated to fine effect.

Scattered throughout the text are passing references to animal cruelty that I found disturbing. Mostly though this is an erudite and humorous tale that both mocks and celebrates language. Usage may be deemed correct (or not) but all words are invented and, over time, meanings change. The way words are used can define how a person is perceived and treated.

I found the contemporary tale more engaging but recognise how deft the narrative is across both timelines. There were many words being checked by staff for Swansby’s dictionary that were new to me. I hope that at least some of these turn out to be mountweasels.

A cleverly constructed and amusing read. Recommended in particular to those who enjoy wordplay.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, William Heinemann.

Book Review: The Cabinet of Calm

Are you in your mubble-fubbles (feeling down, or out of sorts)? Do you need a dolorifuge (whatever it takes to expel the sadness, anguish or pain)?

The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times, by Paul Anthony Jones, brings together a collection of the English language’s more obscure and extraordinary words with the aim of offering comfort in difficult times. Gathered together into fifty-one chapters, the author explores the etymology and need for words describing trouble and its necessary corollary – solace. It is a reminder that difficulties have always been a part of life but that things will, eventually, improve.

There are delights to be found in the eclectic selection. For example,

“When it comes to indulging yourself, a word well worth living by is abliguration, an eighteenth-century term for excessive spending on food and drink (or, as the 1724 dictionary that first defined it put it, ‘a prodigal spending in belly-cheer)'”

Those who are feeling weary may feel better after a sloum – a brief nap.

We could all benefit from a house containing a growlery

“a calming, comfortable, solitary room, filled with familiar and enlightening things, in which a bad mood can be privately vented, mused on and assuaged.”

Within these pages there is no denial that people will feel anxious. What is offered is perspective. Words and their meanings develop over centuries; the experiences they were first used to describe remain familiar.

This is not a self help book so much as a reminder that the ability to express what is happening succinctly can lead to recognition that feelings will improve. The author explains the parlance of certain negative words before highlighting the many more hopeful locutions that also exist.

interfulgent – even in dark times, there is always light

meliorism – a call to arms,

“a belief that a better world is not only possible but inarguably worth taking the effort to create”

This is a book that will appeal to those who take pleasure in language and find joy in the discovery of words previously unknown. The slant towards positivity is to be welcomed given our current situation.

It is a text to be dipped into and learned from. An encouragement to view whatever is happening through a more balanced lens.

mooreeffoc – an approach to life

“things don’t in themselves become boring […] we allow ourselves to become bored with them. Change that way of thinking, and we can change the world around us.”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliot and Thompson.