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The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams


The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
UK Publication: April 2021
Reviewed by: Book Worm
Rating: [★★★★★]

This ARC was provided by Random House UK (via NetGalley) in exchange for an honest review.

Two word review – Loved It!

Synopsis from Goodreads:  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.

My Thoughts:  This is such an important book that raises so many issues about our understanding of language and how our official use of language (the OED) is completely biased towards the people who created it in this case they were mainly men.

I loved the descriptions of the scriptorium; how words were gathered on standardised slips of paper; how words needed to be put forward by more than one source and how they needed to be verified before inclusion in the dictionary. This lead seamlessly onto words that were excluded from the dictionary, some of these were excluded because they were considered vulgar (to be honest the most prevalent word in this book is still considered highly offensive) but a lot of them were excluded because they was no written verification for them. In this story the vernacular of the poor was excluded because it was only a spoken language and had no verifiable written source to “prove” its validity as a word. The words of poor women were even more overlooked than those of poor men as the authors used for verification were largely male only a handful of women’s work were considered valid sources for dictionary words.

Along with the exclusion of words, the actual words included also suffered from a male bias. Words used to refer to something specifically related to women were only even interpreted through male eyes losing the subtly different meanings women would apply to them.

It was also fascinating to see how the advent of WWI lead to a whole new lexicography of words purely relating to war.

Who would like this? I would recommend this to everyone as I believe it is really important to understand how our official use of language has been decided and the limitations of this. Language is evolving all the time and now the idea of a complete dictionary is inconceivable as it will never be completed. Nowadays we have the internet to keep us up to date with evolving language back then they had the voice of a few male scholars and it is fascinating to see how far we have come.

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? 

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. CURREY #

    I have been reading the reviews of this book but now that I have read yours I am actually going to read it!

    Liked by 1 person

    June 5, 2022
  2. CURREY #

    Oh good. I have been reading the reviews of this book but now that I have read yours I am actually going to read it!


    June 5, 2022
  3. Remedial Stitcher #

    This has been on my list for a while!

    Liked by 1 person

    June 5, 2022
  4. Book Worm #

    Hope you both enjoy it

    Liked by 1 person

    June 26, 2022

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