The Dictionary Of Lost Words is historical fiction based around the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Beginning in the late 1800s, this is the author’s imagined story from a woman’s point of view.
Esme is raised by her father, a gifted lexicographer. While he works each day on words for the new dictionary, young Esme often sits under the table at the scriptorium. It’s just a garden shed in Oxford, but to Esme and the wordsmiths it is a place of learned reverence.
Each word begins on a slip of paper with its definition. Most words had several definitions, which needed to be verified, then edited, before a final decision made about inclusion or exclusion from the new dictionary.
‘Words are like stories. They change as they are passed from mouth to mouth; their meanings stretch or truncate to fit what needs to be said.’
Author Pip Williams has considered the methods of censorship around the words which made it to the final publication and those which did not, as well as considering how new words enter our vocabulary during our lives. Set against the background of the suffragette movement and World War One, Esme’s fascination with words drove the story forward. As she grew up she collected words that were used in everyday life, particularly those used by or about women, along with regional and slang words. Many of these words never made it into the dictionary, so Esme made her own collection of them so that they weren’t forgotten.
I liked this story, particularly the detailed days in the scriptorium. The slips of paper for each word conjured lovely pictures in my mind of beautiful old papers tied with string and slotted into the pigeon holes which kept them safe. I can only imagine the disaster if there had been a fire. I recommend this to anyone who has an interest in words and their origin or an interest in the creation of The Oxford English Dictionary.
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In 1901, the word ‘Bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.
Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.
Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences often go unrecorded. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.
Set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It’s a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape the world and our experience of it.