Dictionary book

‘Dictionary Stories’ fictionalises dictionary example sentences: NPR

Look up any word in the dictionary, and there will be an example of that word in a sentence. Book by author Jez Burrows Dictionary Stories develops these phrases into works of fiction.


Unless you’re a kid in a spelling bee or high school or high school graduate for the SATs, it might have been a while since you’ve paid much attention to these example sentences in the dictionary, you know, those simple, can-I-hear-it-in-a-sentence like this included in the definition of the word study. Study of a man devoured by the awareness of his own mediocrity. Expect? What? Who is the man? What made him feel his own mediocrity so deeply that he felt devoured by it? Well, now let’s find out. In her new book “Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions And Other Findings,” author Jez Burrows expands these sample sentences into 100 short works of literature. Jez Burrows joins me from KQED in San Francisco to share some dictionary stories. Thanks for join us.

JEZ BURROWS: Thank you very much for inviting me.

SINGH: We mentioned the word study that got you started on this project. Is there another word that has had a surprisingly imaginative example that you can share with us?

BURROWS: Oh, there were a lot, as you can imagine. I think one of my favorites comes from the Macquarie Dictionary, which is actually Australian. And the sentence was for the word admonish. And the sentence read, don’t scold little Stanislas if he rips the heart out of a barnyard sparrow – which is kind of a wild sentence to be in any book but especially to be in the dictionary.

SINGH: And it’s kind of intimidating.

Burrows: Yes.

SINGH: So give me another example.

BURROWS: I looked up the word gallon as a unit of measure, and the example was gallons of fake blood, which isn’t my first liquid I would go to if I was talking about a quantity of liquids. I don’t know, it just seems more disturbing.

SINGH: Gallon of water, gallon of milk.

BURROWS: Even – sort of, even real blood is less scary than fake blood. I don’t know what’s in the fakeness that really triggered me but…

SINGH: I’m just thinking about the person who finds the sentence, you know?

Burrows: Yes.

SINGH: So let’s go to page 93. It’s called “A Very Good Boy”. Why don’t you go ahead and read it for me?

BURROWS: Okay. Absolutely. (Reading) Does your dog do tricks? He published his autobiography last fall. Laura’s brow (ph) creased. I beg your pardon? He’s written a book on the history of Russian ballet, and he’s also got a novel in the works, a spy novel set in Berlin. He needed something to both challenge his skills and win back his crown as King of Thriller. She looked down at the chocolate-colored Labrador and gave David (ph) a look of utter incomprehension. He is the strong and silent type. The dog licked its paw. Down, boy, down.

SINGH: Alright. So I look at this and I read this and I’m like, what is this? (Laugh).

BURROWS: That’s a fair comment.


SINGH: I mean, when you read the story, when you see what you’ve actually created, what’s the first thing that pops into your head?

BURROWS: I couldn’t tell you the specific point where I thought, oh, yeah, it’s the story of a dog who was a novelist. I think it’s just – it’s just something that happened quite organically because I found sentences that were in the correct order, and the utter absurdity appealed to my senses special humor.

SINGH: But why did you decide to create these stories using, you know, this mixture, this hodgepodge of pre-existing example sentences? Why not use a sample sentence as a prompt, for example, and then make up the rest?

BURROWS: Yeah. I mean, it would have saved me a lot of time. I think I’m attracted to ideas that seem distinctly improbable or reckless is probably the best word to use in this case.

SINGH: So, Jez, what did you end up doing with that gallon of fake blood?

BURROWS: That one actually ended up in a story that’s just called “Recipe.”

SINGH: Wait. Expect. Expect. Liters of blood and a recipe related to food?

Burrows: Yes. It starts off as a fairly normal recipe. And like many stories in the book, it gets increasingly unbalanced.

SINGH: Okay, Jez. OK. Well, thank you very much for your time. Jez Burrows. His book, “Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions And Other Findings”, is now available. Thanks again for joining us, Jez.

BURROWS: Thank you very much for inviting me.

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