#BookReview The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The Dictionary of Lost WordsAbout the Book

In 1901, the word ‘bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.

Motherless and irrepressibly curious, Esme spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of lexicographers are gathering words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary.

Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day, she sees a slip containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutter to the floor unclaimed.

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. She begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

Format: Audiobook (11h 11m)    Publisher: Random House Audio
Publication date: 6th April 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The Dictionary of Lost Words is one of the five books on the shortlist for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2021, the winner of which is due to be announced soon. I listened to the audiobook version, expertly narrated by Pippa Bennett-Warner.

Although the detail of how the first complete edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled was fascinating, I found the pace of the story a little slow to begin with, albeit not as slow as the production of the dictionary which commenced in 1884 and wasn’t completed until 1928! However, once Esme embarks on her mission of collecting words that have been excluded or will never make it into the dictionary, and the reader is introduced to characters such as market stall holder Mabel, and actress and campaigner Tilda, the book started to come alive for me.

Esme’s devoted father can teach her the meaning of any word she comes across but can’t provide the guidance and support of the mother she lost. Instead, Esme is reliant on letters from her Aunt Editha and Lizzie, the kitchen maid at Sunnyside, to provide womanly advice. Even that doesn’t protect Esme from making a decision that will have long-term consequences.

Partly a coming of age story told from the perspective of the fictional Esme, gradually national and world events, such as the women’s suffrage movement, emerge from the background and begin to shape the lives of the characters. Later, the First World War brings both tragedy but also new opportunities.

The book raises interesting questions about the words that get included or excluded from dictionaries, about gender and social bias, and censorship.  For example, the Oxford English Dictionary‘s editor, Dr. Murray, refuses to include what he considers ‘vulgar’ words, such as the names used for parts of women’s bodies, or words ‘ordinary’ people might use whose definitions cannot be backed up by quotations from ‘authoritative’ sources.

Later, the book also addresses the treatment of the indigenous people of Australia, whose language early settlers made no attempt to learn. Interestingly, it’s an issue explored in another of the shortlisted books, A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville.  In fact, this year’s shortlist has a distinctly Australian flavour with many of the books having been published there first.

Those familiar with Oxford will recognize many of the places that feature in The Dictionary of Lost Words – the Bodleian Library, the Eagle & Child pub and the area known as Jericho. Although I enjoyed the book, particularly the latter part, and learned a lot along the way (such as the word ‘fascicle’ – look it up!), I regret I couldn’t quite share the Walter Scott Prize judges’ level of enthusiasm.

In three words: Thought-provoking, insightful, engaging

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Pip WilliamsAbout the Author

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. (Bio/photo credit: Goodreads author page)

5 thoughts on “#BookReview The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

  1. I just picked this one up from the library and have been excited to start it. I have not seen many negative reviews so its good to see different opinions! Hope your next read is a bit better for you x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was just notified by the library that I am next for this one, but maybe I might hold off, it sounds like I might be a bit bored with it. Nice review Cathy.


    1. It definitely picked up about a third of the way through and others have loved it, including the Walter Scott Prize judges. I think the question of gender bias in the dictionary’s compilation is something that has contemporary resonance too.

      Liked by 1 person

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