Sunday book review: The Deeper Meaning of Liff

The Deeper Meaning of Liff
Douglas Adams and John Lloyd

Pan-32220 Adams & Lloyd Deeper Meaning of Liff

Liff (n.)
A common object or experience for which no word yet exists.

This year, the wonderful Meaning of Liff and I share a milestone birthday. Imagine my excitement at the prospect of a sequel to this masterpiece 30 years after the first edition. So it seemed like a good time to read the version on my bookshelf again in anticipation.

Written by the unstoppable duo Douglas Adams (if you haven’t read the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy of five, you are missing out on some magic) and John Lloyd (QI creator), The Deeper Meaning of Liff is a hilarious dictionary-style book that assigns meanings to place names.

In the preface of the original book, The Meaning of Liff (1983), Adams and Lloyd explain: ‘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 the extended 1990 version I read, this leads to a brilliantly funny back-and-forth between the two authors, played out through each edition of the book released between 1983 and 1990. Undoubtedly the best preface I’ve had the pleasure of reading, it is a wonderful indication of their great partnership – one that results in unstoppable giggling.

The book begins with a series of maps – one for each letter of the alphabet. At first it seems that they intend to show the locations of the place names featured in the book. But the more you turn pages, the more you see they are comically skewed, squashed and manipulated, reflecting some of the ridiculous diagrammatic representations of simple things we see on a daily basis. My personal favourite is P – a grid of one square wide by three tall, with coordinates A1, B1 and C1. In A1 is an image of the UK, B1 shows the whole planet, and C1 Australia. Place names starting with P are assigned grid coordinates.

The main part of the book is set out like a dictionary – alphabetically, with recognizable abbreviations describing the words. All the words are place names (mostly in the UK but some further afield) and have been assigned meanings that do not yet have a word. The meanings give a wonderful insight into every day life and personal experiences we don’t often discuss.

Here are a few that I think we should try to get into the OED:

Abilene (adj.)
Descriptive of the pleasing coolness on the reverse side of the pillow.

Albacete (n.)
A single surprisingly long hair growing in the middle of nowhere.

Lingle (vb.)
To touch battery terminals with one’s tongue.

The meanings sometimes come from the feeling you get from a word, or its sound or to the place itself. It’s fun to find places you know whose meanings really reflect your experience:

Bude (n.)
A polite joke reserved for use in the presence of vicars.

Farnham (n.)
The feeling that you get at about four o’clock in the afternoon when you haven’t got enough done.

The Deeper Meaning of Liff is packed full of toilet humour:

Riber (n.)
The barely soiled sheet of toilet paper which signals the end of the bottom-wiping process.

There are many ways to read a book like this. You could dip in and out, use the maps as a guide, look up the places you’ve visited, or search by subject in the index. I read it cover to cover. I think that makes the illustrations even more delightful – springing up every now and again to add more description to a few selected words.


Glenwhilly (n.)
(Scots) A small tartan pouch worn beneath the kilt during the thistle-harvest.

(Incidentally, the illustrator, Bert Kitchen, is responsible for a brilliant appendix. It’s a drawing of the internal organs, pointing out the appendix. Funny, clever and educational.)

When I say I read the book cover to cover, that includes the index. I’m pretty sure it’s the only index I’ve read in its entirety. This entry for legs explains why:

extremely unwelcome things up. Scrabster
false, improvised: Ludlow
things not underneath: High Limerigg
things underneath: Hucknall
unwelcome things down: Wimbledon
unwelcome things on: Pollock
unwelcome things up: Affpuddle
useless: Clun
welcome things up: Burwash

This book is inspired and inspiring. It’s funny, witty, extremely well planned and beautifully executed. 30 years after the first edition, it remains relevant and original. This wasn’t the first time I’d read the book, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Now. As of today, there are 109 days until August, when the next iteration of this masterpiece is set to be published. According to The Guardian, ‘Over the last decade, QI founder John Lloyd has been “patiently squirrelling away” new examples to create Afterliff, which will also include contributions from Adams’s daughter Polly Adams and his old friend novelist Jon Canter.’

Needless to say I can’t wait!


The Deeper Meaning of Liff
Pan Books, London, 1990; ISBN 0-330-31606-0

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