The Anti-Canon: The Domesday Dictionary - Eley Williams

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…


Exploding Dictionaries: an Exegetical Look at The Domesday Dictionary


Anecdote, n.

I wrote a dictionary when I was fourteen. It was exam term and, in an effort to read anything other than the allotted textbooks, I had stumbled across a magazine article about Chambers Dictionary’s editors, specifically the surreptitious insertion of jokes into the text of their lexicons (See: ‘éclair n. - a cake, long in shape but short in duration’). The idea of lexicographers smuggling such entries into an otherwise sincere work of reference struck me as the most amazing act of literary subversion imaginable; I’ve been a fan of éclairs, and eccentricities in dictionaries ever since.

My dictionary consisted of a mighty thirty definitions before I realised Year 9 German wasn’t going to revise itself and abandoned the project. I can recall the gist of just one of its entries: ‘black humour – the insertion of one’s tongue into one’s cheek until such an action hurts, to the point of becoming unbearable’. Not a great line, but there we are. The quotation that I provided for this entry - I was a thorough fourteen-year-old - was the final line of 1066 and All That: ‘America was thus clearly Top Nation, and history came to a ." The fact W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman’s gentle, hilarious book about (un)memorable events in history was published in 1930 and had such a quip as its conclusion stood for me as the perfect mix of comedy and gut-wrench.

Black humour, history, the expectations made of a dictionary and the ways in which one can tell the truth while also cocking a snook: all these come to mind with Donald M. Kaplan and Armand Schwerner’s incredible The Domesday Dictionary (ed. Louise J. Kaplan: Simon and Schuster, New York 1963).

Bargain Bin, n. orig. U.S.

At first glance, the Dictionary could easily be dismissed as ‘a gimmick-gift item, on the sophisticated side’, perhaps belonging to the array of Fun Fact & Trivia!-style onomasticons and almanacs that are available every stocking-filler season. With its conventional dictionary format and headwords like ‘Fission-Fusion Bomb’, ‘RAND’ and ‘Shelters, Soviet’ , the Dictionary does look like a slim, potentially slipshod account of the complex mid-twentieth century it hopes to define. It is only upon noticing that the lemmas Eros, Skin and Undoing also nestle amongst its pages that one begins to suspect all is not quite as it seems.

Covert Ops, n. (colloq.)

The genius of The Domesday Dictionary is that it uses the very lexicon form to send-up the reliability of received fact and disseminated media. This is in the best tradition of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1911) and Flaubert’s The Dictionary of Received Ideas (1913). Intended as a part-parody, part-pastiche of such works as ABC Warfare Defense - Navy Training Course (a pamphlet published in the same year as the Dictionary by the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Washington’s Department of the Navy) the Dictionary is designed to be a handy, easily-navigated manual for living day-to-day with the threat of nuclear war while actually existing as a searing account and indictment of this era.

The Dictionary was written in and for a post-Hiroshima climate and appeals to the Cold War’s tension between eschatology and apocalypticism. Even the title riffs on its content’s exegetical up-the-garden-pathing. While the homophone ‘doomsday’ chimes obviously with the Dictionary’s content (such as its entry for Doomsday clock : ‘[…]The atomic scientists make no claims to being experts at running clocks’), the ‘domesday’ spelling invokes William the Conqueror’s survey of 1086 written with the aim of cataloguing the ‘extent, value, ownership, and liabilities’ of England, its soubriquet linked directly to Judgement Day. In selecting this specific spelling, the Dictionary is asserted not only as an account of a specific time, and highlights that time’s specific political accountabilities, but also the irreversible nature of the events and realities it aims to record.

Details, devil is in the - , n.

The enjoyment of reading the Dictionary comes through consulting it as if it were a real work of reference and being given the run-around by the entries: the thrill lies in the chase, and I’m aware that quoting too many examples would spoil the fun. Queering a conventional dictionary’s format, it nods to the arbitrariness of acquiring information in alphabetical order: the entry for Delusion comes before Democratism, just prior to Denial in just such a knowing joke. Alphabetisation also is used to underline the sense of futility of the era:

Lunik - The first Russian moon rocket.’

Lunik II - See Hard Landing.’

Lunik III – […] It took the first photograph of the dark side and radioed the pictures back to Earth. The dark side looks very much like the other side.’

Rather than defining headwords in such a way that the writers’ ideologies are outlined explicitly, Schwerner and the Kaplans often let the facts speak for themselves: as such the humour is that of commission and omission. This is achieved through a po-faced laconism: the entry for Wall, after a brief history of sieging and fortification as an introduction to the strategic annexing of Europe, there is the question ‘Will walls catch on?’. As the reader’s attention is pulled every which way, the dictionary causing knowledge to be atomised and blasted into discrete units, an encyclopaedia’s reliance upon cross-referencing also becomes a device that serves the book’s humour - for Colonialism we have (See: Entropy), while the entry on Lungs contains a straightforward anatomical definition followed by (See: Blast Effects).

Occasionally, the effectiveness of an entry’s irony comes not only through understatement, but also the entirely unstated. For Dachau, the reader is supplied with the following information: ‘A town in Upper Bavaria, Germany, 8 miles northwest of Munich on the railway from Munich to Ingolstadt. Population (1939) 17, 594. It has extensive fortifications, a castle and a museum of antiquities, and makes paper, sawmill machinery and beer. It formerly had a colony of artists.’


The Dictionary revels in the absurdism of the age, its situations and its language. Terms such as Bambi (‘Ballistic Missile Boost Intercept’) and MANIAC (‘Mathematical Analyzer, Numeral Integrator, and Computer’) are included without commenting on the ludic nature of the acronyms. The reader also encounters brazenly Bierce-like definitions (‘Appeasement: An old demonstration of animal cunning’, backed up with the following marvellous quotation from Leonardo da Vinci: ‘Of the beaver one reads that when it is pursued, knowing this is to be on account of the virtue of its testicles for medicinal uses, not being able to flee farther, it stops and in order to be at peace with its pursuers bites off its testicles with its sharp teeth and leaves them to its enemies’). There is also the gradual development of the lexicographer’s own voice asserting itself with a soft pedantic irateness:

Paddle satellite: […] the somewhat ungainly shape of this orbiting spheroid has earned it the occasional nickname The Tick, an unfortunate cognomen, since the wingless tick can’t get off the ground and besides has six, rather than four, limbs (See, however, Probe)

Later, the term Two China Policy is dispatched with wry meiosis: ‘[…] this discovery, when it occurs, may equal in historical importance the travels of Christopher Columbus, an Italian seaman who found a short route to India.’

Disclose, v.

In many ways the Dictionary functions as a conventional reference book and includes entries on figures crucial to the period. Even in this instance Schwerner and the Kaplans play with the idea of figures’ proximity in an index. All that separates the entries for Kennedy, John Fitzgerald and Khrushchev,Nikita Sergeyevich is a short article on keV (see Electron Volt); the idea of these two figures jostling for space on a page separated only by a fizz of electromotive force is a powerful enactment of their relationship. Remaining with the President (1917 - ) and the Premier (1894 - ), these potted biographies are unusual within the Dictionary for having their birth dates included; the same is not the case for the Harold Macmillan nor Mao Tse-tung sections. This conveys the era’s sense of suspended animation, that a continuum has been created where these figures will never die but sit locked in stalemate within the little puffy bubble chamber of their parentheses. An entry for Teller, Edward, often credited as "the father of the hydrogen bomb", reads like a cross between a rather sweet parish notice-board obituary and an example of Edmund Gorey macabre: ‘[…] He holds eight doctorates, possibly nine, possibly ten. He wrote poetry near Karlsburg, he lost a foot one Sunday afternoon in Bavaria. He wept beside Fermi’s deathbed. He played the piano at Los Alamos.’

Ends, the tying-up of - , n. pl.

Quite apart from a superb subversive work of prose-poetry, The Domesday Dictionary is also a valuable contemporary document and resource for those interested in the period. I had heard of Fat Man and Major Claude Eatherly but to my shame I did not recognise the name Rongelap – even my Microsoft Word underlines it with the familiar red wiggle on its spellcheck Richter scale. I note this is not the case for ‘Hiroshima’ and ‘Nagasaki’; it is interesting to see which words stick in the public consciousness and which evaporate over time.

Existing as an exploration of truths that are hidden, accepted and fabricated, the Dictionary’s authors are uniquely positioned to create this work. Both Kaplans worked on the editorial board of the American Imago journal of psychoanalysis founded by Freud and Sachs in 1939. Louise Kaplan – an expert on fetishism, adolescent psychology, homeovestism and voyeurism – later authored The Family Romance of the Impostor-Poet Thomas Chatterton (1987), examining that notorious literary hoaxer. Ethnopoetic scholar and artist Armand Schwerner’s most famous work is his Tablets made up of ‘translations’ of uncovered ancient Sumerian text; each one is pure invention, credited as "transmitted through Armand Schwerner".

In a world caught ideologically between two political systems and temporally between the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust and the hopeful Dan Dareliness of space flight, with the madcap dark humour of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove the Dictionary dispatches the catastrophic, the unnerving and the absurd with stark and memorable verve. The Domesday Dictionary emerges as a commentary upon the aims of any lexicon that claims to fix in aspic the reality of its time as well as the era it looks to register. In this way Schwerner and the Kaplans’ Dictionary earns its subtitle ‘Being an Inventory of the Artifacts and Conceits of a New Civilization’, gesturing to the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction in those pre-détente years.

A former recipient of the Christopher Tower poetry prize, Eley Williams has had prose work printed in The White Review, Ambit and Night and Day journals. She lives and works in London, staring blankly @GiantRatSumatra on Twitter