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The Dictionary of Lost Words

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The Dictionary of Lost Words

by Pip Williams
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publish Date: 2020
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Feminism
HB&W Rating: 4.5
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Triggers: Death of a loved one, infidelity


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.

Synopsis source: Goodreads


Some words are more important than others–I learned this, growing up in the Scriptorium. But it took me a long time to understand why.

This book is one part love letter to language, one part journey of self-discovery, one part lesson in subversive feminism, and wholly a lovely book. This is a book that you need to take your time with. Let the words wrap around you, let each of Esme’s experiences draw out emotion and reflection, and, like Esme, question everything you thought you knew about language, and indeed about any of the institutions we have today.

If the words of one group are considered worthier of preservation than those of another…well, you have given me pause for thought.

How does something so seemingly innocuous become something scandalous, or insulting, or crude. Why did they become those things, and who rewrote their meanings? Who decides what is to be written down and immortalized and why are some words left out? Who speaks those words? Why don’t their voices get to be remembered? These are the questions that plague Esme Nicoll as she goes from playing under the sorting table in the Scriptorium to creating her own Dictionary of Lost Words.

Note: there is language that is considered offensive used in this book. It is done to illustrate in a scientific way how words can have negative connotations and to question why those negative connotations exist. It is intended to get the reader to think more deeply on this practice and ponder what other examples that reader might find in the everyday.

There are several heavy scenes that necessitated a pause in my reading and required me to sit with them for a while before continuing. It was a much different time that Esme lived in and she was raised in what was then considered a very untraditional way. Her widowed father, a loving and intellectual man, didn’t know what he didn’t know about raising a young lady. He had the help of Edith Thompson, or Ditte as Esme called her, to guide him, but she herself threw convention out the window in most things and encouraged the same for Esme. These things combined to make Esme a woman of a more modern persuasion that we can relate to in the 21st century. Nonetheless, the obstacles she confronted as a woman in her time felt very authentic and relatable.

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.

Incredibly well-researched, the author threaded her narrative around the real-life people and events surrounding the establishment of the first Oxford English Dictionary. For example, bondmaid really was left out of the first edition! I loved Esme and her ability to not just question the status quo but to also question herself. Like anyone, she can be self-absorbed and inconsiderate, but she also checks her privilege and isn’t afraid to apologize or to think herself above it. She sees how insufficient the OED is and takes it into her own hands to rectify it.

Alongside all of this, she contends with her position in women’s suffrage and whether she has to be like her friend Tilda to be effective. I liked how well Williams portrayed the gatekeeping that happens within the members on the same side of an issue, illuminating a struggle that is still very much a real thing today. One group thinks that the others don’t do enough and the others think the first is too extreme.

Williams also touches briefly on The Great War that happened during the publication of the first edition of the OED. While she doesn’t devote a very large part to this part of history, I respected the way she gave life to it. From the overconfident young boys to the reservedness of older generations who know what war does, the pressure to join and the judgement men faced if they didn’t enlist right away, and the loss. Loss of life, loss of limbs, loss of youth, innocence, future.

His fingers curled back, revealing the crushed remains of a white feather….
“You sound like you want to go.”
“Only the young or stupid would want to go to war, Essy. No, I don’t
want to go.”
“But you’re thinking about it.”
“It’s impossible not to.”

The only thing holding me back from giving this a full 5 stars is that I felt like several scenes toward the end of the book were rushed. I felt a bit unfulfilled with the ending, though I liked that it came full circle. All in all, I really loved this book and highly recommend it.

Like Esme in the story, I wondered what words might be used to describe me. So, when I made the slips using Esme’s words from the story for the photo above, I decided to do a few for myself as well to share.

What would your words be?

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