The Future Dictionary of America
Edited by Jonathan Safran Foer (McSweeney's Books)
What are words worth? The wry message of this clever candy box of a book is that they’re worth a hell of a lot—they’re the keys to the kingdom, the building blocks of power, the determinants of the future. According to The Future Dictionary of America, what’s to come will be markedly different from our present, and will be defined by a distinctly left-leaning lexicon. With over 170 contributors and a bonus CD of proto-protest music, this latest McSweeney’s publication is an earnestly tongue-in-cheek effort to effect positive change for the country. Whether or not Dictionary achieves this aim, it’s a winner regardless.
For better and worse, language is the great political motivator. The Orwellian obfuscation of the Bush Administration has shown that if the meaning of a word doesn’t suit one’s needs, it can be hornswaggled into offering a more serviceable translation, often with the help of linguistic gymnastics known as “spin” (a word noticeably absent from this dictionary). What better way to battle spin than to re-imagine the language of the United States? And re-imagined it is, with everything from “acrimoney” (the fine levied against politicians who disrespect individuals or groups) to “Zzzunday” (a new national holiday meant to cure the ravages of sleep deficit) added to our toolbox of expression.
Written in some too-distant future (with the foreword noting this is the sixth edition since 2016), the book works best when it follows its own rules, cleverly poking fun at current trends while remaining above them, such as the definition for “hummer” (a hummingbird) and “puritangential” (a form of argument used to derail an issue by raising an irrelevant one). The book is not quite as satisfying when it sinks to cheap shots, such as the entry for “Cheney, Dick” (husband of Duke Ramirez; First Lady of Fresh Hell), not so much because it’s a one-liner slam, but because it defeats the compilation’s conceit by taking partisan swipes. After all, one would hope that in 30 or 40 years such entries wouldn’t even make the cut. Like the book, the accompanying CD is remarkably strong considering its 22 contributors, with the tracks more directly addressing the upcoming election. Particularly effective are Mike Doughty’s “Move On” (with his admission that he loves his country “like an exasperating friend”) and Tom Waits’ moving soldier’s letter, “Day After Tomorrow.”
Ultimately, the dictionary’s form draws on what McSweeney’s does best: a hit-and-run school of satiric literature. Interestingly, the style was developed on their website, making for a printed work completely shaped by new media. The reader, rather than reading it cover to cover, can navigate through it at random. And, like the website, it makes for hours of good fun.