When asked her age during a recent visit to the New School in Greenwich Village, Liesl Schillinger, the New York Times book reviewer, translator, and author of the illustrated dictionary Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century, made up a word instead: “prevaridate.” This self-professed lover of words and fortyish “old media” person has been posting clever terms—like this combination of “prevaricate” and “date”—to her blog since 2009.
“I think people swear too much, but I like funny strings of expletives,” says Schillinger, a Yale alum who is erudite with an edge. Wordbirds took flight in her wildly creative, linguistically rigorous mind when she overheard The Trashmen’s 1960s rock song “The Bird is the Word.” From that moment on, she began pairing quirky bird images with neologisms like “unispammer,” or a friend who barrages inboxes with sappy forwards.
Wordbirds, the book, offers 200 new entries alongside meticulous and richly colored Audubon-like bird drawings by Elizabeth Zechel. Schillinger is especially strong when naming the idiosyncrasies of today’s technological times, like “faceboast,” a facebook brag, and “hollowgram,” an e-mail accidentally sent without an attachment. She combines deep engagement with our virtual times with nostalgia for the days when books were treasures. A gorgeously designed object, printed on thick glossy pages, Wordbirds is meant to become an artifact.
Schillinger joked, “I hope to see them on eBay!” But the coffee table is not exactly where she imagines Wordbirds. Even though she grew up in Midwest college towns, surrounded by the bookish friends of her academic parents, her influences here are not the high-minded literary works that she loves and translates. Instead, she carried with her a small stack of five cherished “bathroom books” from her childhood, sharing an intimate canon of fake nursery rhymes and silly-smart puns—works that provide her with the kind of enduring joy she put into Wordbirds.
Whimsical and visually stunning, Wordbirds delights by refining familiar sensations, like one of Schillinger’s favorites, “cancellelation,” or the relief when plans fall through. Many words will surely elicit giggles of recognition from readers, but Schillinger, an etymological “megatasker” fluent in 6 languages, insists that some of her intricate inventions will soon be rolling off our tongues along with btw’s and lol’s: “I don’t want to be obnoxious, but I believe some should make it into the lexicon.”
– Jennifer Cayer is a Brooklyn based writer and professor at New York University.