Dictionary Stories

Jez Burrows

April 24, 2018 
The following is from Jez Burrows's collection, Dictionary Stories. Struck by the fictional, italicized sample sentences found in dictionaries, author and illustrator Jez Burrows used them as source material for the stories in this collection. His writing has appeared in McSweeney's, Smith Journal, and It's Nice That.

Aggression, Passive

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The English language has over five hundred thousand words, but John didn’t say a word all the way home.

(Source: New Oxford American Dictionary)


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The King’s Escape

Saved from the gallows by a last-minute reprieve: the story of the king’s escape seized the public imagination—“Our most sovereign lord the King! He must have managed to purloin a copy of the key! His diabolical cunning!”

The sacred relic had been hidden away in a sealed cavern where a black yew gloom’d the stagnant air. He faced west and watched the sunset. Traveling across Europe, he hung on to his mount’s bridle, alive to the thrill of danger. He traversed the forest, went riding over hill and dale, a grouse moor, an olive grove, a peat bog, a labyrinth of swamps and channels, a featureless landscape of snow and ice, a nest of giant mountains, ground frozen hard as a rock. He sailed 474 miles in one twenty-four-hour burst. He fell prey to loneliness and a wrenching sense of dislocation, mighty beasts, abominable weather, rumors of strange creatures haunting the lake’s bottomless nether regions, night people, intolerable levels of hardship. Therewith he rose: a valiant warrior on a single-handed crusade.

He died anyway; so it had all been for nothing. They found his body washed up on the beach. An ill-fated expedition. Eventually the lot fell on the king’s daughter.

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(Sources: New Oxford American Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary)


Exes, An Incomplete List

1. A minor poet (He wrote under a pseudonym. We met through the lonely hearts ads.)
2. A mediocre actor (Camera-shy. Shockingly bad manners.)
3. The man who lodged in the room next door (A conveniently situated hotel. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.)
4. A former Washington DJ whose handle was “Fat Daddy” (A man who, by his own admission, fell in love easily. We soon ran out of gas.)
5. A retired teacher (Painful.)
6. A topiary gardener (Dullsville.)
7. The Honorable Richard Morris, Esquire, chief justice of the supreme court of our state (No comment.)
8. A brilliant young mathematician (A state secret. He kept shtum about the fact that he was sent down for fraud; then he faked his own death.)
9. A manlike creature (The effects of too much drink. I was feeling low.)
10. A lady chef (I just knew it was something I wanted to do. I was living in Cairo then.)
11. A double agent who betrayed some four hundred British and French agents to the Germans (Unbelievable or not, it happened. Listening devices were found in his private office. The man was wanted in a dozen countries but was as slippery as an eel.)
12. An army officer of fairly high rank (We were both awfully busy; he liked his steak rare. Honestly, that’s all I can recall.)
13. A highly esteemed scholar (We were lucky enough to walk by the lions’ enclosure at feeding time, when he said he “didn’t care about life, so why should he fear death?” A profoundly disturbing experience.)

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(Sources: New Oxford American Dictionary, the Collins English Dictionary


Sample Problems: Intermediate Mathematics for Poets 

What is the volume of a cube with sides 3 centimeters long, one afternoon in late October, as the sunset tinges the lake with pink?

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Solve the quadratic equation 2x²-3x-6=3 under several feet of water.

What do you get if you multiply 6 by 9 with gay abandon?

A train runs hourly from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the rate of 60 kilometers an hour. I get up at 6 every day. If the meeting starts at 9:30 sharp, and the journey takes two hours by train, what are we all doing here?

Find the unknown in the following equations, a horse’s mane, a perfect stranger, and a plain brown envelope.

At a latitude of 51° north and a longitude of 2° west, Mary laid a clean square of white toweling carefully on the grass. She was like a child. Careful. Thoughtful. Beautiful. Find the cube root of the result.

The idealism of youth. The inevitability of death. The area of a triangle.

The answer is 280°. The question is not yet decided, one way or the other.

(Sources: New Oxford American Dictionary, the Collins COBUILD Primary Learner’s Dictionary, the Collins English Dictionary, and the Macquarie Dictionary


From Dictionary Stories. Used with permission of Harper Perennial. Copyright © 2018 by Jez Burrows.

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