And no, it’s not 42.
Did you ever feel that the world needed a word for that bead of sweat which runs down your bottom cleavage?
Neither did I.
Luckily for the rest of us, two men did feel that particular need. Indeed, they felt the need to appoint words to a whole raft of life’s quirks which, beforehand, were left to fend for themselves.
And so was born The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff – dictionaries, as they describe themselves, of things for which there aren’t any words for yet.
The creators of Liff are, or rather were, the late, great Douglas Adams and the thankfully still quite present but no less great John Lloyd. Adams, quite the favourite round my way, is the comedic genius behind The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Dirk Gently Detective Series while Lloyd is responsible for, among other things, Not the 9 O’clock News, Blackadder, Spitting Image & QI and is in no way whatsoever, a former tennis player and husband of Chris Evert.
So what’s the concept again?
Well, according to one of the many prefaces attached to the varying editions of the dictionary, The Meaning of Liff can be described as thus:
In life there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognise, but for which no word exists. On the other hand the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing around on signposts pointing at places.The Deeper Meaning of Liff, John Lloyd & Douglas Adams
In short, Lloyd and Adams have taken place names and afforded them new meanings.
Yes it’s an odd concept, I’ll give you that.
But trust me, once you delve into the book you’ll get it, you’ll read on, you’ll titter and you may even begin to adopt one or two into your actual everyday vocabulary.
It is, as is the case for most things for which these gents are responsible, very funny indeed.
A sample of ‘new’ words
Disclaimer: these books came out over 20 years ago so the use of ‘new’ is somewhat subjective. Also, the words themselves are not actually new at all, as they have been used as place names around the world for many a decade, but they are ‘new’ in the sense that they have been attributed ‘new’ meanings – albeit quite some time ago now. I hope that clears things up.
Descriptive of the pleasing coolness on the reverse side of the pillow.
The triumphant slamming shut of a book after reading the final page.
To fart underwater.
The desire of married couples to see their single friends pair off.
A long and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get someone’s bra off.
Blank, sly and faintly embarrassed. Pertaining to the expression seen on the face of someone who has clearly forgotten your name.
The horrible smell caused by washing ashtrays
The daze which follows turning the light on in the middle of the night.
The amount of coffee left at the bottom of a jar which doesn’t amount to a spoonful
Satisfied grunting noise made when sitting back after a good meal.
That part of a song lyric which you suddenly realise you’ve been mishearing for years.
(Of literary critics) To include all the best jokes from the book in the review to make it look as if the critic thought of them. (cough, splutter, what?)
To hold a ruler on one end of a desk and make the other end go bbddbbddbbrrbrrrddrr.
[descriptions taken from ‘The Deeper Meaning of Liff’ by Douglas Adams & John Lloyd, 1990]
On a small patch of land on a small, blue-green planet of little significance, somewhere in the unfashionable part of the galaxy, lived a man; the male variant of the ape-descended life form known to most as the human being. This particular man was of no particular importance in the grand scheme of things, a man for whom the wider aspect of the galaxy and the universe beyond, was so utterly incomprehensible that he chose, for the most part, to ignore it.
Sometime in the latter years of what the locals referred to as the Twentieth-Century, this man spent time at an institution that claimed to be of educational purpose but appeared, on closer inspection to be a denizen of alcohol, sin and other fun stuff. It was a time of promise and opportunity and the man liked it a great deal. One evening, alone in his bed, reading from a book that he’d put off opening for some time on the mis-guided view that it wasn’t for him, he had an epiphany. For the briefest of seconds the secrets of the world were laid bare in his mind, the answer to the great imponderable question revealed itself in all its bright shining glory. The answer was, of course, forty-two.
This, however, is NOT his story…
It is, though, the story of the book he happened to be reading. A self-proclaimed remarkable book that purports, in its introduction, to be:
“more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty-Three More Things to do in Zero Gravity and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?”
With its wild theories of the Universe, its hapless English hero and his oddly named and even more oddly behaved other worldly counterparts; not forgetting the words DON’T PANIC, written in large friendly letters on the cover, the book in question can only be, the wonderful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (HHGG).
More than thirty years have passed since Hitchhiker’s came into publication, a novel spawned from the hugely popular BBC radio series. With its Oxbridge tinged fusion of clever satire, intellectual humour and gut-burstingly funny stupidity the series of books (a further four books were produced in the following years – a five part trilogy, as it were) are the literary equivalent of a Monty Python film. Indeed, the author and creator of the Hitchhiker universe, Douglas Adams, was a contemporary of the Python team and appeared and contributed to the Flying Circus television series.
I first read HHGG as a student at the University of Rhode Island back in the mid-90’s, reading all five novels in the space of a fortnight. They remain today, the funniest books I have read and hold the proud record of being the only books that I’ve had to put down for a rest as a result of over-laughing.
The stories follow the plight of Arthur Dent, the put upon Englishman who spends much of his time in a state of miserable confusion, after he is rescued from earth by his friend and closet alien Ford Prefect, minutes before it’s destroyed by Vogons (an extremely unpleasant slug like alien species with a penchant for paperwork and bad poetry). From here we are taken on a crazy journey through time and space where earth is destroyed, restored and destroyed again in a variety of ways. Along the way we meet a plethora of the galaxy’s most eccentric characters: Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed outlaw President of the Galaxy, Marvin the manic-depressive humanoid robot, Slartibartfast the planetary architect with a speciality in Fjords, a pair of mice tasked with finding out the answer to the ultimate question (42), and Agrajag, a frequently re-incarnated chap whom Arthur Dent always seems to unknowingly kill. And, as the saying goes, many more.
Despite the over-riding sense of absurdity these are extraordinarily well written works of fiction. The plot (each novel is essentially a variation on the same basic plot) weaves, turns and veers off on a great many tangents but ultimately takes you along for the ride and delivers you every time to a thoroughly satisfying destination while the characters, as wacky as they are, are brought to life by their actions and words so convincingly that you find yourself empathising with the plight of the man who has to travel the universe ticking off everybody’s name on a giant register.
Indeed, it is the very fact that the story is nonsensical that makes HHGG work. The galaxy is the exaggeration of all of life’s absurdities, from political scandal to over-bureaucracy to the angst one feels when you can’t get a good cup of tea. An outrageous, brilliant satirical look on, well, Life, The Universe and Everything, really. It is also, in the creation of the Guide itself, a wonderfully prescient look (written as it was in the 70’s) at the evolution of human technology and dependence on the internet and the smart phones of today’s world.
This year is the 10th anniversary of Douglas Adam’s death. He died, tragically young at 49, of a heart attack in California. With his premature passing, the world lost a great writer and the chance for further material from a true comic master. His galaxy lives on however, the film of the book he always craved was finally made in 2005 staring Martin Freeman (he of the Office) and a sixth novel, penned by Eoin Colfer was published in 2009. I’ve yet to read it and while I’m told it’s very good, there’s a certain reluctance on my part to continue the story in the absence of its creator.
For now, I’ll reconcile myself by the bar at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, supping quietly on another Pan-Galactic Gargle-Blaster.
Quote from: The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, Pan Macmillan, new edition, 1979
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Life, The Universe & Everything
So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish