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Foyle’s Philavery

Do not look for the odd word in this book’s title in your favourite dictionary. The author, Christoper Foyle, scion of the family that founded the bookshop of that name in Charing Cross Road, London, says that philavery was invented by his mother-in-law during a game of Scrabble. He says it means “an idiosyncratic collection of uncommon and pleasing words”, a word loosely constructed from Greek phileein, to love, and Latin verbum, a word.

The cover of Foyle's Philavery

This little book contains several hundred words that Mr Foyle has collected down the years, each with a sentence attached explaining its meaning and context. The same page that contains the word philavery, for example, also includes perspicuous, clearly expressed or easily understood speech or writing; phallocrat, a person who assumes or advocates the existence of a male-dominated society; phlogiston, a substance believed in earlier times to exist in combustible matter; phrenologist, someone who studies the shape of a person’s head to assess their character; piblokto, a condition affecting Inuit people and Arctic animals in winter, when excitable, hysterical or irrational behaviour is followed by depression or stupor; and Pierian, relating to Pieria, or to the Muses of ancient Greece (hence, of learning or poetry and, though Mr Foyle doesn’t mention it, the famous couplet by Alexander Pope: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; / drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring”).

I suspect everyone will find words here that strike them as neither uncommon nor pleasing, but that’s idiosyncratic for you. What you will find is a browsable set of mostly interesting oddities, many accompanied by quirky comments. My favourite, which will be understood by anybody who has attempted to navigate the eponymous bookshop, is his note under oubliette:

Derived from French oublier “to forget”, this misleadingly pretty and inoffensive-sounding word reveals an unpleasant concept, and the startling ideology behind its use. During the recent major refurbishment of Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road, one of the biggest bookshops in the country, which has occupied the same building for nearly one hundred years, we explored passages and rooms in the labyrinthine interior which had lain unexplored for decades. Although we did not find any “oubliettes” containing the forgotten remains of bygone book thieves, we did find a lift whose existence was a complete revelation to every member of staff.

[Christopher Foyle, Foyle’s Philavery: A Treasury of Unusual Words; hardback, pp233; Chambers, July 2007; ISBN-13: 9780550103291, ISBN-10: 0550103295; publisher’s price £9.99.]

Page created 15 Sep. 2007

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