Jon Canter on how to write a liff

John CanterA liff is a place-name recycled as the word for an experience, object, feeling, situation or kind of person for which no word yet exists. So which comes first? The place-name or the experience/object/feeling/situation/person?
The answer of course is: either.

Let’s start with Method One, in which the place-name comes first. Take a gazetteer or atlas and read it till you see a place-name that interests you strangely. Let’s say it’s Chadbury. Write Chadbury on a piece of paper or card, so you can concentrate on it properly. Look at it for a long time. Now look at it some more. Keep looking. Look again. Well done. That’s some serious looking you’ve just done. It must be time for coffee.

Time to stop looking and start playing around. If you said you were ‘popping out for a chadbury’, what would you be popping out to do? Would you be purchasing an object, as in popping out for a sandwich, or would you be off to have an experience, as in popping out for a walk? Maybe chadbury’s an adjective, as in: ‘I’m feeling rather chadbury, so I’m popping out for a sandwich. And a walk.’

The meaning of the word should relate to its sound, so try saying ‘chadbury’ out loud. It’s a chewy word, isn’t it, with a kind of aristocratic hauteur. It sounds rather edible and frightfully posh. And there, on some imaginary Waitrose shelf, you’ll find your liff. Chadbury n. – Any jar of preserves, chutney or organic suppository ointment apparently handmade by Prince Charles

Sometimes, the sound of a place-name will immediately suggest a meaning. ‘Anglesey’ straightforwardly sounds like the angle from which you can see something. But Anglesey n – The angle from which you can see something is by no means a great liff. Basically, it’s a pun. The trick is to transform Anglesey into something memorable and unique. You are, in a pun-intended way, seeking a fresh angle. Think hard enough and you’ll take the imaginative leap to: Anglesey n – Hypothetical object at which a lazy eye is looking. As you read the word, you can’t help seeing the person with the lazy eye. And you can’t help imagining the object at which that eye is looking. You’ve gone way beyond the pun.

Similarly, no one would object if you defined ‘Amazonia’ as stuff you order from Amazon. That’s a functional liff. But if you think about the way people use stuff from Amazon, you’ll come up with a definition that’s more particular and more rewarding, because it’s based on observation: Small last-minute gifts ordered online to top up a main present that the giver suspect won’t be good enough on its own. Immediately, there’s the thrill of recognition. ‘Oh yes, I do that!’ Or, maybe, ‘I don’t do that myself but I know lots of people who do’.

Now for Method Two, in which you start with the concept that you think deserves to be immortalized in a liff. Preferably, it should be something that everybody recognises. But now it gets a bit like the maths you learned at school – you want the highest common factor, not the lowest common denominator. Everybody in the kitchen-using world has noticed there’s always a solitary spoon left in the bowl after you’ve done the washing up. That’s a lowest-common denominator, universal but unoriginal. Then there are those universal things which never get mentioned. That’s the level to which you want to aspire: those experiences we all have which somehow feel unique to us but are, in fact, common to everyone. For example, you know when you go to bed after you’ve been swimming, and you suddenly feel a warm trickle emanating from your ear? Of course you know that. Everyone does. But it never gets mentioned, does it? All you have to do now is find a place-name that precisely evokes that feeling. You’re looking for a word that suggests a narrow outpouring, an earhole-flow. After many days and nights, you’ll come across Ewloe. Say ‘Ewloe’ out loud: your mouth becomes a little mouth-hole, doesn’t it? In tribute to the meaning of ewloe, your mouth does an exquisite impersonation of an earhole.

As I write this, I have a gloucester on the underside of my right foot and I’m feeling brund. A gloucester is the deflated skin bag of a popped blister. Brund is the mood you’re in when you don’t know what mood you’re in. It’s a source of great comfort to me, as I’m sure it is to you, that there’s a liff for something as specific as a blister skin-bag and as abstract as an undefinable mood. It just goes to show that when writing liffs, you have the whole of human experience to play with, from the sublime to the meticulous. Enjoy.

Learn how to make a Liff local group