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Literature / The Meaning of Liff

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"There are hundreds of familiar experiences, feelings and objects for which no words exist, yet hundreds of strange words are idly loafing around on signposts. The Meaning of Liff connects the two."
Back cover blurb, The Meaning of Liff

The Meaning of Liff is a humorous mock-dictionary by writer Douglas Adams and BBC comedy producer John Lloyd, first published in 1983, which uses placenames as neologisms. The authors' rationale was that there are loads of everyday things, recognisable sensations and familiar situations for which the English language lacks a precise name, while at the same time there are tonnes of interesting words doing no more than sitting around on road signs all day — so they decided to pair them up.

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Hence if you ever find yourself, for instance, abruptly discovering you've been hearing a song lyric wrong all these years: well that moment of discovery, according to this book, has a name: a rhymney. Or you know when someone in a crowded room is attempting to tell another person something private, rude or plain weird, just as everyone else falls silent? Well, now you can measure the precise loudness and/or embarrassment of this statement as a lulworth. A droitwich is the little hopping dance performed by two pedestrians each attempting to give way to the other and failing. And so on.

In real life the real Liff is a Scottish village, in Angus near Dundee. Its 'meaning', as given in the current edition of the book, is appropriately:

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

The idea was sparked in a conversation Adams and Lloyd had while on holiday in Corfu in 1978 (when the former, a Ridiculous Procrastinator, was attempting to write The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), and based on memories of a school assignment the young Douglas was once given — which may have itself been based on a 1950s essay by English humorist Paul Jennings, Ware, Wye and Watford. Some of Liff's definitions originally appeared in the Not the Nine O'Clock News calender, and "glossop" and "scrogs" are mentioned in the additional material in the Blackadder: The Whole Damn Dynasty script book; both shows were directed by Lloyd.

A revised and expanded version was published in 1990 as The Deeper Meaning Of Liff, though a further revision for 2013's 30th anniversary restored the original title. In 2012 a sequel, Afterliff, was published, compiled by Lloyd and Jon Cantor with added submissions from fans and famous friends.

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Trope Namer for:

Zeerust n. The particular kind of datedness which afflicts things that were originally designed to look futuristic.
(It's a town in South Africa, in case you're interested.)


The Meaning of Liff contains examples of, or words for:

  • Abstract Scale: Several words define the measurement of something that can't be measured.
  • Achievements in Ignorance: "Aboyne" is to win a game of skill against a professional by playing so appallingly that none of his clever tactics are of any use to him.
  • Apologises a Lot: Greeley.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: "Aberbeeg" is to use a Mexican accent when called upon to play any kind of foreigner.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: The definition for "nacton" gives the examples fish 'n' chips, mix 'n' match and assault 'n' battery.
    • The definition of "toronto":
      Generic term for anything which comes out in a gush despite all your careful efforts to let it out gently, e.g. flour into a white sauce, tomato ketchup on to fried fish, sperm into a human being, etc.
    • "Belper":
      A knob of someone else's chewing gum you unexpectedly find your hand resting on under a desk's top, under your car's passenger seat, or on somebody's thigh under their skirt.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Ible.
  • Curse: "Aird of Sleat", an ancient Scottish curse cast from afar on the land now occupied by Heathrow Airport.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: Sluggan is when you really did walk into a door, but no-one believes you.
  • Home Made Sweater From Hell: Jurby.
  • Ignore the Disability: Wigan — an ITN newsreader with a Dodgy Toupee was supposedly always given stories about that town.
  • Mondegreen: Woolfardisworthy. From Hamlet:
    When he himself might his quietus make,
    With a bare bodkin? Who woolfardisworthy,
    To grunt and sweat under a wary life.
    • The realisation that you've long been hearing a mondegreen, via belatedly discovering the true words of a song, is itself defined as a "rhymney".
  • Literal Cliff Hanger: A grimmit is the small bush cartoon characters cling onto.
  • Self-Deprecation: The book originally bore the tagline "This book will change your life", either as part of its cover or as an adhesive label. The eponymous "liff" was then defined inside as:
    A book, the contents of which are totally belied by its cover. For instance, any book the dust jacket of which bears the words, 'This book will change your life'.
    • The thirtieth anniversary edition instead bears a sticker claiming "New and unimproved".
  • Seven Minute Lull: The measurement of the embarrassment this causes is a "lulworth".
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Gildersome, a joke that starts off well, but which the listener tires of after half an hour.
  • The Shill: Tigharry, specifically in the three-card trick.
  • Shout-Out: To Monty Python. The title was specifically a riff on that of their contemporary film The Meaning of Life, although it also works as a more general pun on the phrase.
  • Spanner in the Works: Aboyne.
  • The Talk: Ambleside.
  • This Product Will Change Your Life: According to the cover, though subverted by the original definition of "liff" itself (see Self-Deprecation above).
  • Translation: "Yes": "Pen-tre-tefarn-y-fedw"'s definition, allegedly a direct translation from the Welsh, runs to three lines.
  • Your Mime Makes It Real: "Scosthrop" is the act of miming using a pair of scissors while searching for them, in the hope that it will favourably influence your chance of actually finding them.


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