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The Dictionary of Lost Words

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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.

384 pages, Paperback

First published March 31, 2020

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About the author

Pip Williams

14 books1,528 followers
Pip was born in London, grew up in Sydney and now calls the Adelaide Hills home. She is co-author of the book Time Bomb: Work Rest and Play in Australia Today (New South Press, 2012) and in 2017 she wrote One Italian Summer, a memoir of her family’s travels in search of the good life, which was published with Affirm Press to wide acclaim. Pip has also published travel articles, book reviews, flash fiction and poetry.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 14,176 reviews
Profile Image for jessica.
2,555 reviews35.6k followers
May 31, 2021
i absolutely adored the first 1/3 of this.

i loved reading about esme growing up amongst the work of her father and falling in love with words and their meanings. i enjoyed her relationship with her dad and how they bonded over their mutual affection for language.

but then once esme became older and the years progressed, this story became more focused on esmes personal trials, such as pregnancy, womens suffrage, depression, and the casualties of england at war. which are all important topics, but i just wasnt connecting to this narrative as much as i was with esme childhood. maybe its because the last 2/3 have such a dreary tone compared to the beginning and i just wasnt feeling it.

overall, not a bad book by any means; i just found my personal interest slowly declining throughout. although, the epilogue and the authors note at the end are exceptionally interesting and did help me appreciate the story more.

3.5 stars
Profile Image for MarilynW.
1,198 reviews3,038 followers
August 12, 2023
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams  

It never occurred to me all that went into compiling early dictionaries. Male scholars worked for decades to compile the words and definitions to go into the first Oxford English Dictionary, words and definitions whose final acceptance was at the discretion of the editors of the volumes. This story describes the garden shed in Oxford where real life lexicographer, James Murray, built a Scriptorium, a shed behind his house, where he and his team of scholars could work on amassing words and definitions. Murray and his wife had eleven children who were very involved in Murray's work. 

The fictional part of this story concerns, Esme, whose father is widowed at Esme's birth. Esme's father is a member of Murphy's team and he brings Esme to work with him each day. As a youngster, Esme spends time under the big table of the workers and often gathers discarded word slips and hides them away in a chest in the room of house servant Lizzie. Lizzie, although just eight years older than Esme, is a combination of mother, companion, and maid to Esme, especially once Esme is banished from the Scriptorium for interfering with the work there. 

Later, an unofficial dictionary is compiled of all the words that Esme gathers from the discards of the Scriptorium, and from women and poor people of Oxford and surrounding areas. Words that wouldn't be considered for the Oxford English Dictionary because they are just spoken, not written (since they are used by people who would never learn to write) and words that are considered too crude or offensive to be included in the dictionary. The means to this dictionary being created is one of my favorite parts of the story and concerns Gareth, another of my favorite characters, along with Lizzie. Towards the end of the book, Gareth writes one of the saddest letters I've ever read. 

I thought the work of the lexicographers and assistants was fascinating and this book encouraged me to research the creation of dictionaries further. As the author's note mentions at the end of the story, many of the people and events in this book were real. But Esme, her father, her friend Gareth, and servant Lizzie were fictional. I admired the characters of Lizzie, Gareth, and Esme's father for what seemed to be hard work during lifetimes of trying circumstances.

Esme too had her trials, often due to choices she made, but I felt like the story was brought down by her constant sadness and long bouts of depression. The character of Lizzie, losing her mother to death at the age of eleven and her siblings to orphanages and becoming a lifelong servant at that young age, is a much more compelling story, for me. This is a girl/woman whose life consists of arising long before her masters, to get things ready for the household, working more than sixteen hours a day, not being able to go to bed until after everyone else in the household. This is her life, day in, day out, as long as she is able to get out of bed and do it again. Constant sleep deprivation and no life of her own, no chance of a husband or family and yet, Lizzie's attitude to life is an inspiration. 

Lizzie's story ties in well with the part of the story about suffragists attempting to change things for women. But Lizzie wants no part of that, she is practical and knows that she can only be thankful not to be living on the streets. Esme, even though she is working class, has her loving dad, a home, eventually a job working in the Scriptorium, yet she never seems happy. If only the fictional character of Esme could have learned how to better cope with her blessings, I might have enjoyed her part in the story more. I appreciated getting to learn about this time in our history and the real people who worked to give us the Oxford English Dictionary. I give this story 3.5 stars rounded up to 4 stars. This was a great buddy read with DeAnn and Mary Beth.

Pub April 6, 2021

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine and NetGalley for this ARC.
Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,306 reviews44k followers
December 15, 2022
This is brilliantly well- researched, detailed, refreshing journey emphasizing the importance of words, empowerment and raising the voices of women during the World War I with layered, impeccably crafted, memorable true characters who changed the world with their special and remarkable contributions.

I have to admit: this book needs your patience, attention, full focus. Especially first third is overwhelmingly slow but when you get into the story and lose yourself in the precious world of words, connecting with Esme and the preparation process of first Oxford dictionary, your curiosity takes over and you get more excited to learn more by becoming part of the world and linguistics.

Esme is a little girl, creating herself a secluded universe at a garden shed of Oxford called “ Scriptorium”. Her invisible, unheard, unnoticed place was beneath the sorting table where his father and a loyal team of lexicographers work on collecting words for the first Oxford Dictionary.

One day, Esme finds a slip of paper fluttered on the floor. The word “bondmaid” is written on it. She hides the paper, stashing at Lizzie’s trunk. ( Lizzie is the maid working for them, raising her after her mother passed away)

Later she finds other tossed slip of papers so stashing them is turning into her special game. Later she realizes each word she stashed relating with women unrecorded. That gives her idea to form her own dictionary consists of lost words mostly about women’s world!

With the suffrage movement’s rising and Great War’s looming, a new history starts written itself with the unrecorded, abandoned, neglected words!

It’s compelling, well- developed, great work enlighten us about the unknown pages of history and magical power of true words.

I highly recommend it to historical fiction and based on real characters fiction fans. It’s quite informative, intense, realistic novel to read and absorb slowly.

Special thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group/ Ballantine for sending me this digital copy of incredible arc in exchange my honest review.
Profile Image for Lisa of Troy.
433 reviews4,241 followers
September 26, 2023
Two words: urban dictionary

If I said that I spent an hour booktoking, would you know what I meant? The definition would be roughly equivalent to spending time watching bookish videos on TikTok. However, who gets to decide if a word is a word? Is it now a word because I spoke it into existence? Or that I published it through GoodReads?

This is my book club’s pick for December!

The Dictionary of Words starts off incredibly strong: We find a little girl, Esme, under a table in Oxford. Her father is working on putting together the dictionary. Under the sorting table, a word flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the word and starts to compile a collection of words that didn’t make it into the dictionary.

As much as I loved the premise of the book, the storytelling needed to be sharper. Normally, I tend to enjoy slow-paced books, but this was too slow. For me, the major events of the book were entirely predictable. I was bored, waiting for the predictable events to finally conclude. Many events were overexplained.

In the book, one of the characters talks about how steam is perfectly acceptable in books. This I found amusing because this book lacked any steam.

Also, what happened to Bertie?

Overall, I thought that this book provided some interesting, good food for thought, but it should be been half of its size.

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Profile Image for Angela M .
1,308 reviews2,191 followers
May 24, 2021
4+ stars

Even though a little slow moving at first, this book was a pleasure to read. This fascinating novel brings to life the history of the first Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s not boring as that might sound! I’m glad I didn’t let the slowness of the first half stop me because it turned out to be a wonderful piece of historical fiction, the kind that pulls you into events of the past with unforgettable characters, both real and imagined. The narrator Esme is one of the fictional characters whose life reflects not only the compilation of the dictionary, but what is happening in the world at the time - the suffrage movement, WWI, the place of women in society . Through Esme and some other women who actually played a role in compiling the OED, the author celebrates those women, who had not been fully recognized. Discovering these women was the inspiration for this book . It appears to be well researched.

At six years old Esme becomes enthralled with the words she finds on the slips of paper, as she sits under the work table in the Scriptorium where her father works on the Oxford English Dictionary. Later working there herself, she finds words of common usage mostly by women, words that would never make it into the dictionary from places, other than under that table. The beauty of these words Esme discovers, even those considered vulgar, is that the usage of them is real and linked to their life experiences and for Esme that is enough to confirm their importance and merit and should be preserved . Some of these words are based on her own experiences as well, both the sad, heartbreaking moments and the joyful ones.

My first experience with the OED was in college in a course on Chaucer when we were assigned to review the origin some of the Old English words from Canterbury Tales . As a diligent student I did my assignment and I can honestly say I gave no thought whatsoever to how the dictionary came to be. So this was a learning experience about that process, but so much more. It’s about words and wisdom and capable women, about endearing relationships between father and daughter, with friends and with a good man. A well done debut novel that will have me looking to see what Pip Williams may write in the future.

I received a copy of this book from Ballantine through NetGalley.
Profile Image for Keiran Rogers.
20 reviews32 followers
March 30, 2020
This is one of the best books I have ever published.
A cracking plot about how the word Bondmaid was stolen from the Oxford English Dictionary, but also a book of gorgeous characters. This had me crying like a baby at the end.
Profile Image for Beata.
755 reviews1,157 followers
July 11, 2021
A fine example of historical fiction that held my attention throughout. Herculean effort to prepare the first edition of Oxford English Dictionary described together with some historic events of the period, the beginning of the twentieth century, and blended with good character development. The novel felt real to me, and turned out to be unputdownable, especially due to my personal linguistic interests.
*A big thank-you to Pip Williams, Random House UK, and NetGalley for arc in exchange for my honest review.*
Profile Image for Liz.
2,143 reviews2,759 followers
February 17, 2021

Lovely. Wonderful. Sublime. Delightful. Enchanting. Charming.

This is one of those books whose premise just enthralled me. Esme’s father was one of the lexicographers working on the Oxford English Dictionary. She grew up understanding the power of words. As she gets older, she also starts working on the dictionary. First running errands, but eventually being given more responsibilities.
Fair warning, the first part of the book is a bit slow. It’s not until Esme takes it into her head to collect words for another dictionary, the Dictionary of Lost Words, that it truly comes alive. If history is written by the victors, then in the same vein, vocabulary is deemed meaningful only if it’s the words of the educated, male, ruling class. Her first word is knackered. “Lizzie had never once said she felt listless, but she was knackered all the time.” Esme definitely gets an education with some of the words. Let’s just say they’re not words used by polite society.
The book is perfect for those that love language. But it’s also a great story, filled with lovely characters. Not just Esme, but her Da, Harry, and Ditte, a dear family friend. Ditte’s letters to Harry are interspersed throughout the book and really helped round it out, giving us a different look at Esme. The book took turns I never saw coming. It encompasses two big chapters of history - the suffragette movement and WWI. It spans from 1887 - 1989. And it shows us love, in all its permutations.
LOVE A passionate affection
ETERNAL Everlasting, endless, beyond death.

My thanks to netgalley and Random House for an advance copy of this book.

Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,323 reviews2,145 followers
December 4, 2021
This is the perfect book for anyone who enjoys historical fiction and loves words. That's me by the way.

A wonderful story, based on fact, is told of how the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled. It seems crazy to us today, but a team of learned scholars sat in a garden shed gathering and annotating words and their meanings. As they worked on each letter of the alphabet the words were stored on slips of paper in wooden pigeon holes. Each word was taken out and the meaning of it disputed endlessly until there was agreement on its definition(s). No wonder it took fifty years to get to Z.

Through the main character, Esme, we follow the day to day work of the lexicographers, spend some interesting time with the Women's Suffrage Movement, and eventually experience the horrors of the first World War. Esme is a fictional character but I am sure she epitomises many women who lived through that time.

I enjoyed this book so much. The writing was beautiful, the characters charming (especially Gareth), and the story was intriguing and sometimes heart breaking. I reached for the tissues several times towards the end. Definitely a five star book for me and I am looking forward to what this author writes next.
Profile Image for Annette.
798 reviews382 followers
October 12, 2020
The first Oxford English Dictionary was created in 1901 only by men. Archives have proved that there were “female volunteers, assistants, spouses, none of whose contributions were acknowledged.” Where there any words “these scholarly men might have chosen to omit from their version of the English language?” This question becomes the premise for this story.

Oxford, 1887. Esme’s father is “one of Dr. Murray’s most trusted lexicographers,” and she doesn’t have a mother to care for her, thus a blind eye is being turned, when she is in the Scriptorium - under a table. As a word on a piece of paper slips off the end of the table, she catches it and saves it. When she questions what happens to the words that are left out, she is told, “If there isn’t enough information about them, they’re discarded.”

With time she becomes an assistant, now working ‘above’ the table. Esme’s ambition grows. She wants to collect the words on her own, and not just wait for them to come by mail to the Scriptorium. She fills her pockets with slips and pencils and ventures to the Covered Market on Saturdays. Mabel, who sells used wares, fills Esme with plenty of words, even with some which may raise one’s eyebrow or give a good chuckle.

The rule of dictionary is if a word is commonly spoken, but not commonly written, then it will not be included. Esme argues this rule.

Enjoyable atmosphere. I enjoyed very much the description of the Scriptorium. A shed at the back of the house filled with scholars, who have their routine, which gives a unique atmosphere. Also, the circle of friends. When Esme goes to Bath for some time to assist their friend in her research, who is an expert in history and respected for her knowledge. She creates a circle of scholars who come to her house and others on regular bases. The atmosphere of the afternoon tea gatherings is very special.

The story begins with Esme as a young curious and bubbly girl, then she becomes closed off due to some events. Being surrounded by loving people helps her heal and she becomes approachable again and thriving. You can feel this process of her transformation.

What makes this story very special, it is its uniqueness. Like no other story ever told before. The search for words and defining them. And lovable characters you warm up to very quickly. With a deep grasp of words a unique story is woven evoking time, place and character, saturated with beautiful prose.

Source: ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
July 18, 2023
In 1887, six year old Esme Nicoll is being raised by her father Harry, one of the lexicographers working with Dr. James Murray compiling the Oxford English Dictionary. She spends most of her free time under a table in the Scriptorium , the “Scrippy”, collecting slips of papers with words written on them that fall to the floor or are discarded, her first being a slip of paper with the word ‘bondmaid’ written on it . She keeps her collection in a trunk that belongs to Lizzie who works as domestic help in the Murray’s household and becomes one of her best friends and confidantes.

As the years progress, work on the dictionary continues and Esme grows up to be a young lady whose love for words and her growing collection of discarded slips of paper develops into a practice of searching for words that are significant not just to her but to the people, especially women, around her.

“Words are like stories, don’t you think, Mr. Sweatman? They change as they are passed from mouth to mouth; their meanings stretch or truncate to fit what needs to be said.”

Her quest for words significant to women, colloquially and regionally, might not find way into the OED, but do find a way into Esme’s own life and are ultimately documented in her own compilation of "lost" words.

“Words change over time, you see. The way they look, the way they sound; sometimes even their meaning changes.”

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is a moving and meticulously researched novel that combines fact and fiction. Spanning decades, the words, the people and the events of Esme’s life and the voices of the women of her time are interwoven with the timeline that incorporates WWI and the suffragette movement. I really enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the Scriptorium and the lexicographers process of collecting, compiling and editing the OED.

Slow-paced yet informative, with a cast of memorable characters, The Dictionary of Lost Words is a beautifully written, unique story that I thoroughly enjoyed.

“The Dictionary is a history book, Esme. If it has taught me anything, it is that the way we conceive of things now will most certainly change."
Profile Image for Debbie W..
761 reviews569 followers
September 27, 2021
Inspired by a chance omission in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, this is a story of poignant love and heartbreaking loss. I savored every word!

Why this book has a place on my Favorites bookshelf:
1. surrounded by real-life powerful people, fictional character Esme Nicoll is so likeable with her insatiable curiosity and naivety - I felt empathy for her throughout the story;
2. the setting during the making of the Oxford English Dictionary is quite unique;
3. incredibly well-researched;
4. the hard copy includes a b/w photo of the Scriptorium staff and timelines of the making of the OED as well as major historical events featured;
5. even the "Acknowledgements" are most readable, cleverly portrayed as dictionary entries;
6. I learned some new words myself (e.g. Madeira cake, fascicle); and,
7. in the words of several authors, this novel is - "timely and timeless; wonderfully constructed; a compelling, fresh look at historical women; inventive; enchanting; original; and finally, an unforgettable debut" (I couldn't have described this story better myself!)

I will most definitely read other books by this author!

I highly recommend this outstanding debut novel to all historical fiction fans - it's like no other that you have read!
Profile Image for Baba.
3,619 reviews986 followers
April 14, 2022
Esme although motherless and having academic Oxford of the late 19th century as her world delights living in and around the group of people building the very first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of her fictionalised life, but a story embedded in the real history and characters of the OED first edition. This is a wonderfully bookish tale that is ultimately about the patriarchal privileged Victorian endeavour and explores whether this environment meant that many words were omitted and not even considered because their source was either from the disenfranchised and/or women.

The book also covers the lot of the poor, women and suffragettes, as well as what it may have been like to grow up motherless in Victorian England; it's nowhere near as stuffy as it might sound to some and proved to be a really immersive experience. One of those books, that might not be the greatest but I whole heartedly feel every booknerd MUST read! 8 out of 12.

2022 read
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,549 reviews604 followers
February 3, 2023
[2.8] The premise of this book is fascinating - a young woman, Esme, grows up amongst a team of lexicographers who are collecting words for the first Oxford English dictionary. Unfortunately, Esme has no spark or personality, she plods through life collecting word slips and mourning her losses. I did like Lizzie the maid. Because it was for my book club, I trudged along with Esme to the end.
54 reviews
April 20, 2020
I really wanted to like this but my pet peeve with historical novels is when the writer can't stop themselves putting modern sensibilities into the actions, words and motives of the characters. It tosses you right out of the world the writer is trying to recreate. In this novel, it felt as if the writer had more than one ideological barrow to push and in the end, I kept losing the sense of the story and felt like I was reading a woke sermon.
My other criticism is the inconsistencies in the main character. There were times when she would make a decision or speech and it made no sense to how the character had acted or how she had processed her life experiences up till that point. It was as if the writer had decided particular things had to be done or said regardless of whether they fit the character. Not a smooth read.

Note for those who like to be aware: there is quite foul language.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
1,009 reviews49 followers
July 16, 2021
After reading, based on the recommendation from a good friend, Simon Winchester's The Surgeon of Crowthorne: a tale of murder, madness & the love of words (published in the US as The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary), Williams was left with the distinct impression that "the Dictionary was a particularly male endeavor" — as she writes in the Author's Note at the end. She soon "gleans ... all the editors were men ... most of the literature, manuals, and newspaper articles used as evidence for how words were used, were written by men." And thus began her foundation and the desire to create something of her own here:
"Where, I wondered, are the women in this story, and does it matter that they are absent? —It took me a while to find the women, and when I did, they were cast in minor and supporting roles."

The premise is sound. The women and minorities of history were pushed to the sidelines. To reveal their places of importance in the past is sometimes nigh on impossible. The basic idea of the Dictionary only including words that had been thoroughly defined in an approved publication alone means that the input will largely come from the educated, wealthy white men who were allowed to publish — and whose contributions were deemed within the scope of reason. So, the outline of this starting block for Williams is wonderful.

Having always loved the etymology of words and the evolution of languages, I went into this thinking I'd adore the basic pull through the story, even if the overall threads were a bit loose. But this went a little beyond that for me. Getting through this book proved to be more of a chore than a pleasure, and I struggled with staying engaged — especially with the static, passive main character, Esme Nicoll, leading the way.

First of all, Williams skims the surface of what kind of novel this is — character driven or plot driven, and instead tries to ride the line between both but never landing fully in either. So we get a novel that is mostly full of telling and not showing, rather than any actual on-page character development, and we also get a novel that is one plot point after another, just around the bend. Secondly, we are introduced to Esme at a very young age, and the pacing is extraordinarily slow as she grows into being a woman in her thirties. There are barely two years at which the novel jumps ahead by at a time and even then it isn't until into the second half of the novel.

Esme's fascination with words begins organically enough, as her father (created for this book) Harry Nicoll, a widower, is an assistant of Sir James Murray (not fictional) at the Scriptorium where work on editing a new dictionary of the English language had been set. Her fascination starts out innocently enough — grabbing stray scraps that are intended, she believes, to be thrown away because they are to be excluded or as the bit of paper is a duplicate. Esme begins keeping her secrets in a little trunk owned by Lizzie Lester, a young maid in service in the Murray household who often is assigned to take care of Esme. But as the years seem to tick by, Williams can't quite shake the age of about six years old off of Esme — and she never really grows up much at all, in fact, and often feels emotionally stunted for no particular reason.

This understandable fasciation turns into an obsession — but without the obsessive thoughts and so it just ends up being empty and occasional thievery. Once she was aware of this thievery and old enough to feel how wrong it was, but to still deny herself the opportunities to come forward before she's found out and publicly shamed, further permanently installs her in the foothold of childhood. Again, for no particular reason. Even against the flow of the novel about womanhood and the contributions overlooked from women.

Esme simply felt very much like a vehicle for the author — especially knowing the main drive that compelled Williams to write a fictional account of the but where are the women idea. From the Author's Note:
"From the beginning, it was important that I weave Esme's fictional story through the history of the Oxford English Dictionary as we know it. I soon realised that this history also included the women's suffrage movement in England as well as World War I.

Esme was pushed around — very slowly — through these key points, once we escaped her childhood. But she was never allowed the expansion into a full-fledged person. Things happened to her instead of Esme displaying any real agency of her own. She's constantly being pulled around in life by some invisible force — or rather, the fourth-wall author, so to speak. Esme's character amounted to no more than an empty shopping cart being pushed around a large store . . . a vehicle to be filled and emptied as needed . . . with calamitous plot points waiting just around each turn at the ends of the aisles.

As Esme discovers the words that are excluded from the publication of the Dictionary are namely words that are spoken by the poor, the uneducated, the women, etc., I had hoped this would direct the course of her life and bolster this woman into something with a little more spine. Lizzie is even somehow left to display, throughout the book, the idea that she loves her life of servitude — all hinging on the definition of a lost word: bondmaid. Esme understands the ideas behind fighting for women's rights, but somehow never actually manages to do anything at all about it. She never comes out of this shell of uncertainty, this two-dimensional world of what a woman should be as defined by men. But her growth was stunted from the get-go, and despite being placed into situations that she must then be written out of, she really doesn't experience much growth at all as a character. Not to mention, other characters fall off the page themselves and out of her life at an alarming rate. Esme herself is stripped of so much as the novel progresses that you have to wonder what was the point of it all.

Sadly, her collection of words goes no where (other than that trunk) without the help of a man in her life later in the book. And the single copy publication of this dictionary of hers is given as a gift of sorts from him. Mainly what this book made me wish for was a more detailed account on the woman, Edith Thompson, with whom Williams took liberties and included as a self-appointed aunt for Esme. Plus, it makes me want to read the book on the publication of the OED by Simon Winchester. The basic outline is sound — and I liked the way it made me want to delve farther into my own side stories on this subject and the publication of dictionaries, this one just didn't deliver it for me on its own.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This affected neither my opinion of the book, nor the content of my review.
Profile Image for Carolyn (on vacation).
2,247 reviews642 followers
November 4, 2020
In her Author's Note, Pip Williams says that the idea for writing this book came from the non-fiction accounts of the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, which all ignore the contribution of women in this huge undertaking. Her research lead her to discover that there were female assistants, including the daughters of the chief editor James Murray, Hilda, Rosfrith and Elsie who all worked in the 'Scriptorium', a large tin shed in Murray's garden, in sorting, compiling and checking words and quotations and sorting them into groups in pigeonholes ready for editing. Editor Henry Bradley's daughter Eleanor worked alongside him at a second office in the Old Ashmolean museum. Many woman also sent in quotations for the words, including sisters Edith and Elizabeth Thompson who provided thousands of quotations and editorial assistance from the first to the last volume.

In writing this novel, Ms Williams has addressed this lack of recognition of women by highlighting the role they played in the production of the dictionary over the fifty years it took to compile. Her fictional character Esme, first appears as a little girl sitting quietly under her widowed father's desk collecting words that are lost or discarded. As she grows she comes to understand the importance of words and their meanings and also realises that many words in common usage which are important to women are not being included in the dictionary. This starts her on her own journey of discovery and collection of words significant only to women. Her friendship with a female suffragette and the loss of young men to war will also awaken her to the role of women in her world. As Esme becomes an assistant herself and takes on more responsibilities for the dictionary, she is supported by the real life women who played a role in putting it together, notably Murray's daughters and Edith Thompson with whom she has a close life-long relationship.

The novel is a little slow to get going, but once it does both Esme's story and that of the dictionary become absorbing reading. Esme's life is not easy as she suffers significant losses but through it all she never loses her love of words. For a non-fiction companion piece I recommend The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester (the US edition is called The Professor and the Madman), an account of the fascinating relationship between James Murray and one of his contributors who was the inmate of an asylum for the insane.

A photo from Wikipedia (author unknown) of James Murray in the Scriptorium in front of the pigeonholes used to sort and store the words and quotations

Profile Image for Barbara.
285 reviews246 followers
December 13, 2021

I loved Esme from the tine she enjoyed climbing under the table at the Scriptorium. Feet and legs beneath a table can tell you so much about the person attached but unseen. At about the same age as Esme, I could be found crawling under the table at large family gatherings. Aunt Teresa's feet and legs could belong to no other relative, neatly crossed at the ankle above the very still feet in orthopedic shoes. But which relative kept crossing and uncrossing their legs, tapping out some unheard tune? Was the adult conversation disturbing or did they need to use the bathroom? This underworld entertainment would continue for me, and for Esme, until my absence was noticed and I was forced to join those in the above world. Of course, we both received an admonition for unladylike behavior.

I continued to love Esme as she grew, as her collection and love of words grew, as the Oxford Dictionary's entries swelled, as she questioned why some words were excluded. I loved her awakening awareness of gender exclusion, class exclusion and the resulting toll on those left out. I admired her determination to find everyday words known only by everyday people. Her love of words was so broad and accepting, never too racy, never too forbidden. I loved how the inclusion of these words gave those who were powerless, who felt lowly and forgotten, a sense of worth.

As readers, we also love words, written words and spoken words. There's no shortage of sayings describing the power of words. But this novel is about so much more than just words. It is about acceptance of all people and all that they are. It is about who has power and who has control, not just about what goes into a compilation of words, but in politics and in our lives. And ultimately, it is about love: love of language, love of one's career, love of family and friends. It is about living a life of meaning.
Profile Image for Neale .
310 reviews144 followers
January 28, 2021
So many times the blurbs on the front and back cover of novels are nothing but hyperbole, the novel failing to live up to exaggerated expectations, but Tom Keneally’s blurb,

“There will not be this year a more original novel published. I just know it.”

This is not hyperbole.

Esme’s mother died, so her father must look after her through the day. Esme is hiding under the placing table, her normal place of residence while her father and fellow lexicographers write the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, adding words, definitions. It is a tiring laborious process. It is from this “hiding place” under the table that Esme “steals” her first word. The slip of paper containing the word “Bondmaid” flutters down and lands in front of Esme who snatches it, not knowing the consequences that her actions will have in the future.

As time progresses and Esme grows older, she starts to build her own dictionary. A dictionary made up of words that will not be included in the official dictionary. She sources these words from many delightful characters and most of the words have a tendency to be female slang words, or words currently in the dictionary that take on a very different meaning for these ladies.

Firstly, there is her own “bondmaid”, Lizzie, who is more of a dear friend then a servant, remaining faithfully by Esme’s side throughout the whole novel. Then there is Mabel O’Shaughnessy, a truly brilliant character who lives in poverty and sells bits and bobs, trinkets, anything she thinks she can really, at the market. Mabel enlightens Esme to the crude, the crass, the slang words that would never be entered into the official dictionary. Tilda is an actress who Esme also finds at the markets. She is a suffragette, not afraid to get her hands bloody, or break a few laws in the interminable fight for the vote.

It is Tilda who opens Esme’s eyes to the plight of women and how they are treated as second class citizens without a voice. Williams’ uses Tilda to explore the theme of the suffragettes and the bravery of the women who strove to be heard and succeeded.

The book spans from 1887 to the epilogue in 1989. Therefore, Williams also covers the period of The Great War and the effect it had on every facet of life. All the able-bodied men were raring to go, some thinking it would all be over in weeks. None of them prepared for the terrible nightmare they were doomed to become trapped in. The war itself proves to be a repository. Esme visits an infirmary where wounded soldiers provide yet more words for the fledgling dictionary.

“If war could change the nature of men, it would surely change the nature of words.”

There is a lovely touch towards the end of the novel in which Esme is given the charge of looking after a young soldier who is suffering from severe shellshock, or PTSD. He remembers nothing, and simple words are beyond his comprehension. Esme uses the Esperanto language, a constructed, auxiliary language built with the intention to sow peace between nations, to help him. A beautiful message. It is a tribute to the power of words when the patient's doctor tells Esme,

“This is the first time he has been calmed by words instead of chloroform.”

Pip Williams has attempted and succeeded in giving a voice, although Esme is a work of fiction, to the women who worked just as tirelessly as the men on this dictionary. She has built a narrative that revolves around the stolen word “Bondmaid”. It starts the novel off, it is integral to the narrative, and then it is there in the epilogue.

A brilliant novel. Especially for lovers of words. 5 stars!
Profile Image for Danielle.
831 reviews451 followers
February 17, 2023
I almost put this book down. 😬 When people say it’s slow- it’s very slow. The first 50% was very slow paced. The last half definitely gets better. 🤗 If you’re a word nerd, I’m sure you’ll find this simply a masterpiece. It was an okay read for me. 🤷🏼‍♀️
Profile Image for ScrappyMags.
597 reviews256 followers
April 6, 2021
...Welcome to the Edwardian Urban Dictionary!

Shortest Summary Ever: Words are Esme’s life as she grows up under her father’s desk where he and other men edit the Oxford English Dictionary - an arduous undertaking that dominates a lifetime. As pieces of paper fall to her by chance, she collects them; these treasured words fascinate and enthrall her. As she grows up and exposes herself to more in the world, new words capture her awe and enter her life - words used by women from all rungs of society (yep the dirty ones too!), and thus she begins to collect those into a dictionary of her own making. With women’s suffrage as the backdrop of the story, Esme navigates this world captured and lead by what she knows - words.

Thoughts: So unique! The fictionalized story of actual people and events lends an education to the reading (and piqued copious Google searches on the creation of dictionaries). Add in the tumult of the Suffragist’s Movement and I’m in literary heaven! It was surprising (and refreshing) to learn of women who were different in the turn of the century - unmarried and unconcerned about it. Say whaaa? There were women like that? In this book yes. So spinsters and those who “do you” or those who chose marriage and kids, unite and enjoy a book that cerebrally celebrates our amazingness.

All my reviews available at scrappymags.com around time of publication.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Recommend to: It’s middle road feminist but should grab the feminists’ interest, those who enjoy the genre, English teachers and wordsmiths will drool.

Not recommended to: If words bore you, but then you probably aren’t reading this.

Thank you to the author, NetGalley and Random House Ballantyne for my advanced copy in exchange for my always-honest review and for making me appreciate the words, yup the dirty ones too.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,975 reviews1,986 followers
June 25, 2023

My Review
: First, read his:
Some words are more than letters on a page, don't you think? They have shape and texture. They are like bullets, full of energy, and when you give one breath you can feel its sharp edge against your lip.
I often wondered what kind of slip I would be written on if I was a word. Something too long, certainly. Probably the wrong colour. A scrap of paper that didn't quite fit. I worried that perhaps I would never find my place in the pigeon-holes at all.
A vulgar word, well placed and said with just enough vigour, can express far more than its polite equivalent.

There is an immense gulf between thoughts and words...Esme, as a girl in the almost-all-male world of dictionary-obsessed dad Harry, discovers again and again that the ideas we robe in words aren't seen by those who hear them as we've made them in our minds. The factual world of making the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) presided over by Dr. James Murray is expanded to include a fictional word-mad girl-child whose run-ins with lying adults, oblivious adults, and peers without her ruling passion for The Words We Use are the meat of this delicious, if difficult to deal with at times, novel. Esme Nicholl does not spend her life the way Dr. Murray's typically Victorian daughters do. Her days are spent being educated at school; her afternoons with the men at the Scriptorium as they collate and pigeonhole and excise the tens of thousands of definitions and attestations through usage that arrive in Dr. Murray's home/workhouse from around the world. Careless dropping or deliberate deletion, it makes no never-mind to young Esme. She re-homes them in her treasure-chest, under a housemaid's bed, their shared secret.

The dropped words, Esme notices as her life gives her more analytical tools, are often words commonly used by, among, and about women and their activities. Her world is coming for her, bent on controlling her and bending her to its will. Her Godmother Edith, a factual person really nicknamed Ditte, is a very unconventional woman and a prolific contributor the OED. She's acted as a co-parent, in a limited way, to Esme; yet she fails her when Esme desperately needs her simply because Ditte doesn't live in Oxford, let alone in daily contact with Esme.
“Dr. Murray said you and Beth were proflitic contributors,” I said, with some authority.

“Prolific,” Ditte corrected.

“Is that a nice thing to be?”

“It means we have collected a lot of words and quotations for Dr. Murray’s dictionary, and I’m sure he meant it as a compliment.”

The relationship is pretty tidily encapsulated there. Older mentor, not quite understanding the mentee but giving great guidance anyway; just not quite what was really needed. The words for things are centered; the denotations are generously given, while the connotations are left more or less to Esme's maturing brain to construct as best she can. She is, after all, equipped with well-designed tools...but no manuals to train their user in their best use.

In her word-collecting fever, Esme amasses much raw data, many denotations. Her goal for it remains unfocused until she realizes that the words' connotations give her the needed feminist perspective: she and her half of humanity are doomed to be controlled until they can participate in life as political actors instead of passive observers. Yes, she discovers Feminism and becomes a suffragette. And uses her life-long capacity to work with words to give sharp focus to her purpose.
If war could change the nature of men, it would surely change the nature of words.
“Words change over time, you see. The way they look, the way they sound; sometimes even their meaning changes. They have their own history.”

Something I wish people who fuss over neologisms and redefinitions would process. Things are growing or dying. There is no stasis in natural systems, and no homeostasis doesn't count...it is a finely balanced state but predicated on constant shifts and changes that must support a larger whole's proper, healthy functioning. Just like language...the words are always tip-tilting, reconfiguring themselves, shedding pieces and adding others; but the language as a whole lives and thrives and, broadly, remains the same. Only different.
It struck me that we are never fully at ease when we are aware of another's gaze. Perhaps we are never fully ourselves. In the desire to please or impress, to persuade or dominate, our movements become conscious, our features set.

That snapshot effect, the mask of Persona slid over a person's face, is what Esme is resisting as she rescues rejected and deleted words from the magisterial OED. Her women's words are the ones men most need, and are supremely reluctant, to hear. Esme's project, fictional of course, is the titular dictionary, with words like "menstruation" (simply too earthy and shuddersome for the frail little men making the OED) to "knackered" because it's vulgar and ugly when a more refined person could say "exhausted" or "listless." Esme thinks "bollocks to that" and spends her adulthood on the many pieces that must be moved around and reconfigured to make a society that can even properly think about a way to include women as adult beings.

And herein the reason I don't give this book a five-star warble of ecstasy...the passage of time. It doesn't. I'm herky-jerkyed into different stages of Esme and the world's life but the setting remains...internal. It's The Esme Show, instead of Truman; she's the star and no doubt. But there's a degree of alienation in that. Thank goodness there are so many dates to open chapters! Too bad they don't mean more. It's certainly true that we, in our daily rounds, don't think carefully about where the screens in the piston of our french-press coffeepot come from, or how and when to clean or replace them. But some sense of Esme's adjustments to the world around her, since her project is to effect true change upon it, would've helped me grasp the maturation parts of time's passage. I felt the lack of that connection keenly.

Esme's relationships were also a bit troubling to read for this reason. Lizzie, her female exemplar in residence, was a lower-class girl whose best hopes weren't as high as she's actually risen by working for the Murrays and becoming Esme's comadre. By rights she should be a dead young worn-out whore. So the way the privileged miss and the rough serving girl should practically leap off the page at me, right?
“Me needlework will always be here,” she said. “I see this and I feel…well, I don’t know the word. Like I’ll always be here.”

“Permanent,” I said. “And the rest of the time?”

“I feel like a dandelion just before the wind blows.”
My mother was like a word with a thousand slips. Lizzie’s mother was like a word with only two, barely enough to be counted. And I had treated one as if it were superfluous to need.

It's really the fate of most of us...we vanish into nothingness as soon as we assume room temperature. Ephemeral as life is, what I found wanting in those perfectly lovely passages was the solidity of Life beating Esme with her own responsibility to and for the older but more vulnerable on a practical life-level woman.

Still and all, I'm so pleased that I read this wonderful story. I think it could have made more of an impact on me had some stylistic choices been made differently; that is always the way with making art, no one can create something as powerful and fully realized as this book is without making choices that won't work for everyone. I felt very strongly the aura of choices and decisions affirmatively, consideredly made at every turn. This is in no way a slapdash or ill-made work of fiction. Its real and its fictional characters are treated with equal gravitas. That the factual characters take up less screen time is a decision that the author and editor clearly planned carefully and executed deftly. I can offer no more heartfelt recommendation than "read this book soon." I *could* have, if certain other, less distancing, choices had been made, turned obnoxious pest and shouted at you to get the book NOW read it on the Jitney or in the Admiral's Club but just GET IT!!

But really, does it get that much better than this?
I thought about all the words I’d collected from Mabel and from Lizzie and from other women: women who gutted fish or cut cloth or cleaned the ladies’ public convenience on Magdalen Street. They spoke their minds in words that suited them, and were reverent as I wrote their words on slips. These slips were precious to me, and I hid them in the trunk to keep them safe. But from what? Did I fear they would be scrutinised and found deficient? Or were those fears I had for myself? I never dreamed the givers had any hopes for their words beyond my slips, but it was suddenly clear that no one but me would ever read them. The women’s names, so carefully written, would never be set in type. Their words and their names would be lost as soon as I began to forget them. My Dictionary of Lost Words was no better than the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons: it hid what should be seen and silenced what should be heard.

Pip Williams: I salute you for writing a grown-up book for real, passionate readers.
Posted by Ric
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
810 reviews1,267 followers
August 28, 2021
"Our thinking was limited by convention (the most subtle but oppressive dictator."

The abundance and popularity of tragedy porn WWII historical fiction novels have almost ruined my interest in reading any historical fiction.

As soon as I hear the genre mentioned, I immediately think of a Jewish man or woman being rescued from the Nazis by a German (sometimes soldier, sometimes civilian) who has fallen head over heels in love and decides to risk it all for the sake of providing overly sentimental entertainment for readers of the 21st century eternal love.

No thank you. I find it reprehensible that the horror of WWII is turned into romantic entertainment, with little or no discussion of the issues surrounding the war or the genocidal murder of millions of Jews, as well as others. 

As I was putting together my April fiction order for the library, I added The Dictionary of Lost Words to my cart and almost didn't look to see what it is about - my personal interest is usually thwarted by the words "historical fiction". However, the title made me look further and I discovered it's not tragedy porn; it's not even about WWII.

Instead it's a fictionalized account of the writing and compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. It begins with young Esme who hides out under the table in the Scriptorium where her father works. She is enamored of words and is delighted when slips of them, with their definitions and quotes, find their way to the floor.

Esme begins collecting words that will be excluded from the dictionary. As she gets older, she starts working for the Scriptorium and it was fun to see what went into putting together this dictionary. 

The story is set against the backdrop of the Women's Rights movement in England and as Esme gets involved, she learns that poor women were all but excluded. As Esme's maid notes, "All that ruckus the suffragettes make, it isn’t for women like her and me. It’s for ladies with means, and such ladies will always want someone else to scrub their floors and empty their pots."

Poor women's rights weren't being fought for. They were all but invisible. 

Esme came to see that their voices were also silenced, the words they used were not deemed important enough for inclusion in the dictionary. She begins compiling a dictionary of her own to give voices to women who were otherwise ignored.

The book is well-written and the author has done her research to authentically bring this period and its people to life. Unfortunately, my interest waned by the last 1/4 or 2/3 when a romantic interest enters the story and it revolves more around that than the women's rights struggle. I think the book would have been better if it didn't include a love story. It devolved into overly sentimental mush. 

Many readers like to have a love story in their novels but it's not my thing, especially if it's a female-male relationship. Still, it was worth reading for the first part alone. 3.5 stars rounded up.


And for the enjoyment of my fellow logophiles, here are a few fun words I learned in the book:

Jog-trotty, adj. - Boring (The last part of the book was jog-trotty with all the googly eyes and breath on lips and quick beating of hearts.)

Dollymop, noun: "A woman who is paid for sexual favours on an occasional basis." (I wonder how many dollymops Donald Trump refused to pay.)

Latch-keyed, adj: An unchaperoned or undisciplined young woman. (Women should be latch-keyed and allowed to go out as they please.)

Morbs, noun: A sadness that comes and goes. ("I get the morbs, you get the morbs, even Miss Lizzie 'ere gets the morbs.... A woman's lot I reckon."
Profile Image for Marci carol.
98 reviews
June 6, 2021
A novel that, includes the actual, true early history of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The author was also given a dictionary when young and had wondered about the influence of women and how they relate to words. Is something lost in a words definition when only defined by men? Do men and women define words differently?
In the beginning of the book, I started to bore , but then it took off like wildfire. I was then absorbed until the end and I’m sure it had to be tedious sorting through and explaining the history of the dictionary and real time line events along with a story.
The novel is about a woman who is a lexicographer and grew up with men who were editing the Oxford English Dictionary. She wanted to be an editor, but this was not an option for women of this time period. She was fascinated by words and sought out women and words they used that, she did not know. Eventually, she wrote a “Dictionary of Lost Words”, to inspire and dedicate words from a female perspective that, would have been lost and forgotten, if not recorded over time.
I’m fascinated by words, old sayings, and reading. I’m often caught to this day repeating old sayings and quotations that were prevalent during earlier times. There are some words that, I hadn’t considered had been around in print for so long. The book discussed the true timeline of the Oxford English Dictionary, World War 1, suffrage movement, and women’s history. Now I also know more words, such as, morbs, bondmaid, dollymop, madcap, etc., Of course, along with gaining even more respect for the Bodleian library and Old Ashmolean In Oxford, England.
Profile Image for DeAnn.
1,357 reviews
April 6, 2021
3.5 lexicographer stars

This book is highly researched and opened up a new world to me with the origins of early dictionaries. I never thought much about how a dictionary was put together and updated.

Our main character is Esme, and the book follows her life from a young child through adulthood. She is raised by her father and he is a lexicographer. She frequently joins him at work in the Scriptorium – a repurposed garden shed – filled with scholars researching words, derivations, and definitions. She graduates from “under the table” to an assistant with her own desk. She checks citations at the library and realizes that there are some words that women use that are not in the dictionary.

So begins the Dictionary of Lost Words as Esme gathers words and definitions from the local market and some of the interesting characters there. A frequent contributor is also Lizzie, the maid to the main editor of the dictionary. Lizzie and Esme have an interesting relationship. I also enjoyed the character of Ditte who serves as Esme’s mother figure. There are side stories with the start of the suffrage movement in England and the buildup to World War I. I also enjoyed Esme’s romance with Gareth.

While I did enjoy this one, it was a slow read and the characters do not enjoy much happiness. I think it was authentic to history, but I need more joy in life, especially during a pandemic!

This was a good buddy read with Mary Beth and Marilyn. We had lots of words with this one!

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House/Ballantine who offered me a copy to read and review.
August 24, 2022

I picked up this book with a lot of consternation , if it will be an arduous read, will it be laden with all fanciful and indiscernible words for me. But all my fears were mollified.

The title of the book was misleading to me, I could not fathom that it isn't a catalogue of obsolete words but a full-fledged interesting narration from a female's perspective about the words omitted imperiously pertaining to females and common folks by the master-decider of a dictionary, the lexicographer, Mr. Murray and his team. I was dazed to know that a word - Catamenia existed !

As Goodreads rating for this novel was brimming with stars, I was decoyed to invest my entire night to delve deep into it.

It was indeed an endearing reading-excursion for 25 percent of the narration, but the rest went dreary and drab for me. Maybe my existing faster-paced reads have transcended such slower-paced reads of high morals. Let me be candid, I rambled through some 150 pages when our all grown-up protagonist was setting out on an earnest mission.

The novel begins with our protagonist "Esme", who is is a precocious motherless child. She is born in a family living in a world of creating the very first Oxford English Dictionary.

The loftiness and tedium of collecting and cataloguing of words, is undertaken by Dr. Murray, the lexicographer. Esme's doting father is a part of his team.

Esme's fascination for words starts from her first visit to the Scriptorium in the back garden, brimming with paper cards containing words. She spends time crawling under the table, staying enchanted by the slips going into the pigeonholes and many lying unattended.

On one fine day, a paper-slip containing the word "bondmaid" flutters beneath the table. Upon knowing that the word belongs to her young servant friend Lizzie, she endeavors to start collecting all such ignored words into a wooden trunk.

As she grows up, she discerns that all the words pertaining to women and the commonfolk go unrecorded.

She sets out earnestly on the quest to collect and catalogue words for her own unofficial dictionary - "The Dictionary of Lost words"

To do so, she starts practically meeting people. This part was dragged for me personally, and I was forced to start flicking through the pages.

Finally, when Esme presents a copy of her work to an editor to make it official, he rejects it as not a “topic of importance”.

Esme responds to him: “you are not the arbiter of knowledge, sir. It is not for you to judge the importance of these words, simply allow others to do so”.

Set in the backdrop of the women's suffrage movement, "The Dictionary of Lost Words" is a well-researched work on women equality.

Inspired by actual events, it is a well-researched work of author Pip Williams.

The pith of the novel is indeed thought-provoking and is all about celebrating discarded words. It defines the major part of the power of language in shaping the world.

For me, it was like a babbling procession of lost words pertaining women and common public!

I have docked 2 stars just due to the slow pacing and unnecessary drag. I think some 150 pages could have been subtracted and the novel could have been condensed well enough to make it a well-paced quick read for this well-researched work. It would have garnered more appreciation.

This read on suffrage movement was a high-value but a slow-paced and a dragged read for me.

I conclude, advancements definitely impact our proclivities and likings :)
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,301 reviews22k followers
February 1, 2022
I really don’t want to spoil this book for you – because I enjoyed it a lot and it would be far too easy to write something that gave the whole thing away. This is part coming of age story – part war story – part fascination with words – part history of the OED. And these are a few of my favourite things.

The thing I liked most about this book was the question whether or not words mean different things to men than they do to women. And are there such things as ‘women’s words’? I imagine a lot of people would look at those questions and immediately answer ‘no’ to both of them. But this book presents a pretty compelling case for why we should perhaps hesitate in answering those questions.

I like the post-structuralist idea that language, or, at least, the vocabulary of a language, is a ‘system of differences’ and that it is impossible to have two words that ‘mean the same thing’ in much the same way that Leibniz would challenge people to find two ‘identical’ leaves in a garden – the impossibility of which should be clear by logical deduction that an empirical proof is impossible and unnecessary.

Words are the same – there can be no two that mean exactly the same – and a large part of the point of an historical dictionary like the OED is to provide quotes of ‘first uses’ for the shades of meaning that words have.

I guess in much the same way that young Blacks in the US have sought to reclaim the N word, or how some women have sought to reclaim words like ‘bitch’, there can be ‘women’s words’ in that sense. But I do think it is possible this goes deeper still. Where words have textures that feel different depending on where one is placed within society – and gender is such an obsessive dividing line in our society (with us often being marked as pink or blue before we are even born) that it would hardly be surprising if such categorisation didn’t deeply impact the language we use and how it means to us.

The author mentions a word as being ‘like a character’ in the book – and what I found particularly nice about this word was how its meaning changed during the book for the main character, from a word of oppression to one of love.

I had better shut up now or I will give thing away – but this was a lovely book.

Oh, I did want to say one other thing, people often expect authors to have a ‘voice’ and to acquire this voice they need to do weird shit with language, weird shit that is then understood to be their ‘style’. I’ve started noticing that a political journalist here I quite like will throw in odd little things in her articles about politics that I need to go look up. For example “ingenue in search of a svengali” or “humblebrag”. It would have been so easy for the author here to have done stuff like that – but I can’t think of a time when she did. Her writing is always clear, lovely simple sentences. Her style and voice is her own – with no need lose the reader. I liked this a lot.
Profile Image for Marianne.
3,499 reviews179 followers
May 1, 2020
“Some words stretched so far back in time that our modern understanding of them was nothing more than an echo of the original, a distortion. I used to think it was the other way around, that the misshapen words of the past were clumsy drafts of what they would become; that the words formed on our tongues, in our time were true and complete. But everything that comes after that first utterance is a corruption.”

The Dictionary of Lost Words is the first novel by English-born Australian author, Pip Williams. Ever since she was a little girl, sitting under the sorting table at her Da’s feet, in the loftily-titled Scriptorium (the old iron shed lined with pigeonholes in the back garden of Sunnyside), Esme has loved words.

Under the direction of the editor, Dr James Murray, and with several other assistant lexicographers, her Da, Henry Nicoll was compiling a dictionary: the Oxford English Dictionary. The words, their meanings and their use in quotes came on slips of paper, to be sorted and debated (sometimes quite vociferously) and included or rejected.

“Whenever we came across a word I didn’t know, he would read the quotation it came with and help me work out what it meant. If I asked the right questions, he would try to find the book the quotation came from and read me more. It was like a treasure hunt, and sometimes I struck gold.”

The slips might be discarded, the word rejected if the definition was incomplete, or a duplicate. Esme hated the idea that words would be lost. And sometimes slips were dropped. Esme began to save these words. They would go into her Dictionary of Lost Words.

This unusual, inquisitive little girl wasn’t going to fit the middle-class wife-and-mother mould. At school: “If all the children at St Barnabas were a single word, most would be examples of the main definition. But I’d be some rarely used sense, one that’s spelled strangely. One that’s no use to anyone.” Esme was happiest when working in the Scriptorium.

Eventually, “I had a desk and would be given tasks… I would serve the words as they served the words.” She later came to realise that words would not be included for various reasons, but the one that most troubled her was that the word did not appear in print, even if it was commonly used.

“I’m sure that there are plenty of wonderful words flying around that have never been written on a slip of paper. I want to record them. … Because I think they are just as important as the words Dr Murray and Da collect. … I think sometimes the proper words mustn’t be quite right, and so people make new words up, or use old words differently.”

But it was when she was exposed to a charismatic suffragette that she began to notice how the process was skewed against women, the poor and the disenfranchised. And if motherless Esme wasn’t brave enough to take their type of militant action, her female mentor could suggest a less blatant way.

Williams populates her novel with a marvellous cast of characters: quirky, diligent, loyal, nasty, loving and wise, they’re all there, and emotional investment in Esme and her friends is difficult to resist. She deftly demonstrates the power of words: sometimes, just one will bring a lump to the throat, a tear to the eye.

Her extensive research is clear from every page: so much interesting information, both historical and philological, is woven into this wonderful tale. Especially fascinating to any lover of words is the process of making a new dictionary, illustrating the reason it takes so long. Laugh, cry and incidentally, learn a lot in this brilliant debut.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Affirm Press.
Profile Image for Gloria (Ms. G's Bookshelf).
643 reviews136 followers
May 19, 2021
⭐️3 Stars⭐️
The Dictionary of Lost Words has had so much attention and the cover is quite stunning. I did find the first half of the book slow and a little boring, but because it had such good reviews I kept reading and was so pleased I did. The second half of the book was most enjoyable and it was quite an eye opener into the history of the Oxford Dictionary.

The book is a fictional story revolving around the creation of the first Oxford dictionary. Esme is a young girl who likes to spend her childhood sitting beneath the sorting table in a garden shed they name the ’Scriptorium’. This is where her lexicographer father and other workers debate which words are to be included in the dictionary. Here Esme sits unseen and unheard, she is motherless and is raised by her father.

The word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor and Esme hides it and then stashes it in an old trunk that belongs to Lizzie a maid who helps to raise her, this will be the first of a collection of slips she hides. This is the story of Esme's life and her fascination with words.

The book touches on subjects of single parenthood, the suffrage movement, World War 1 and the bias towards the language of women and the lower classes.

Recommended for lovers of language. Extensive research and love has gone into the writing of this book which is based on major historical events and real-life characters.
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1,822 reviews1,384 followers
December 1, 2021
Shortlisted for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction - not out of place in the exalted company of "Hamnet" and eventual winner "The Mirror and the Light".

Bondmaid. It came back to me then, and I realised that the words most often used to define us were words that described out function in relation to others. Even the most benign words – maiden, wife, mother – told the world whether we were virgins or not ………. I looked out of the window towards the scriptorium, the place where all the definitions of the words were being bedded down. What words would define me?

The book takes place over a century from 1887 to 1989 and effectively is a fictionalisation and re-interpretation of a true story – the compilation of the Oxford University Press’s New English Dictionary (which became better now as the Oxford English Dictionary) under the editorship of Sir James Murray and a team of lexicographers, based for much of their time in the Scriptorium – a shed in Murray’s garden where the thousands of standard-sized slips, received from around the world setting out meanings and usages of words are examined, evaluated, compiled and storied in a series of specially designed pigeon-holes.

Our first party, fictional, narrator is Emse Nicoll whose widowed father Harry works as a lexicographer in the Scriptorium. We first encounter her as a young child – burning her hands trying to receive a rejected slip which happens to feature her Mother’s name (Lily) from a fire. And this sets something of the pattern for Esme’s young life (and the direction of her later life): as someone who is both seeking a mother figure and who seeks to rescue words, meanings and usages rejected or excluded from, or simply not even considered worth for, the dictionary

The crucial opening scene of the book is cleverly based around a true incident (https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/5...) – the only known undeliberate omission from the collected works – the word Bondmaid (meaning slave girl).

Esme who spends her days under the sorting table – spots and decides to keep a stray slip with that word on it and stores it, largely forgotten, in a small suitcase owned by a housemaid Lizzie.

Although this loss is not spotted Esme’s subsequent light-fingered attraction to the slips is noticed and discouraged. That however does not prevent her from embarking on a project to collect lost words and to start to compile the eponymous collection.

The opening third of the novel is I have to say rather simplistically written, as well as slowly paced and maybe rather repetitive (slips put on tables seem to live up to their verbal usage a little too often). In both aspects though I realised that this fits Esme’s life at that stage: she is, of course, an immature young first party narrator; and her word-collection projection is rather ill founded and directionless at this time - perhaps as much as anything a reaction to the loss of her mother.

The need for a substitute mother (or at least supportive female figure) takes three different paths as Esme grows up and the novel simultaneously hits its stride.

The first is Lizzie: hearing of Esme’s quest for words, she takes her to a street market where she introduces her to Mabel – who opens Esme’s ears to a range of words excluded from the dictionary due to both the sex and class of the people that use them. Their first encounter – and some of the words that Mabel uses and defines gives a very abrupt change from the novel’s rather genteel opening. Esme also refinds her long hidden Bondmaid slip – and when Lizzie realises that the word fits her own servitude it also starts to open Esme’s eyes further to class inequality.

The second is an encounter with a group of actors – including a suffragette Tilda (and her brother who gives Emse her first relationship). This opens Emse’s eyes to the fight for women’s rights and also brings in the different tactics used in the fight for voting rights (as well as what universal suffrage means – Esme only two conscious that even the most militant suffragettes are happy with votes for female property owners.

The third is via the (real life) Edith Thompson – a key volunteer on the Dictionary project. In the novel as Ditte she acts as an close Aunt to Esme and advisor to Esme’s father on how to raise a daughter – her letters to both are scattered throughout the letter. Not all her interventions are positive – a recommendation for a boarding school backfires badly – but later she plays a crucial role when Emse’s life is at a crisis, in an extended spell away from Oxford which gives the book a real emotional strength.

Later Esme forms a deepening relationship with one of the typesetters at the Oxford University Press before their relationship, and the final stages of the OED suffer the disruption of World War I – where despite the horrors and the personal tragedy she still finds a way for language and words (in this case Esperanto) to reach the marginalised (in this case a shell shock victim

After its rather shaky start, this is just a really very well executed book – every aspect has taken thought and consideration. Whether it’s: the nicely illustrated Oxford street maps at the start; the word and time span headings for each Part of the book; the lengthy, informative and considered Author’s Note; the cleverly designed acknowledgements; the twin timelines (of OED and historical events); the copious research; the one photograph (and the way it is included in the text as well as in the Acknowledgements) and so on. This is a book which has benefited from time, love and attention from its author, editors and publishers.

But best of all is the bravura ending to the book which simultaneously: brings the story to the modern day; brilliantly links the second edition of the OED to a second edition of Esme (one more able to take advantage of the educational and professional opportunties available to female lexiographers in the late 20th century); movingly reminds us that in the same way that collections of English words has lead to forgotten voices of women and the poor – the English language itself is a sign of colonialisation and involved the loss of native, first people languages in Australia (something which is also sensitivly picked up in the Acknowledgements and which links the book to another Australian literary wonder “The Yield”).

Highly recommended.

I thought about all the words I’d collected from Mabel and from Lizzie and from other women: women who gutted fish or cut cloth or cleaned the ladies’ public convenience on Magdalen Street. They spoke their minds in words that suited them, and were reverent as I wrote their words on slips. These slips were precious to me, and I hid them in the trunk to keep them safe. But from what? Did I fear they would be scrutinised and found deficient? Or were those fears I had for myself? I never dreamed the givers had any hopes for their words beyond my slips, but it was suddenly clear that no one but me would ever read them. The women’s names, so carefully written, would never be set in type. Their words and their names would be lost as soon as I began to forget them. My Dictionary of Lost Words was no better than the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons: it hid what should be seen and silenced what should be heard.

My thanks to Random House UK, Chatto and Windus for an ARC via NetGalley
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