Book #96

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

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

It feels strange to imagine the dictionary being put together; collecting each word in the English language and attaching meaning to it, ensuring all variations of meaning are included, and deciding which words are important enough to include, and which aren’t. A relentless, thankless, and most likely never ending task.

Esme’s father works in the Scriptorium, helping to complete this mammoth piece of work. We follow Esme from childhood, sitting underneath the table examining the employees’ shoes, to adulthood, working herself towards the completion of the dictionary.

Her focus soon rests on the words the men have chosen to omit from the dictionary, rather than those they choose to keep. Slang words, swear words, words only used by women, words given a different meaning by women, words the men simply did not believe warranted a home within their great work. It was gorgeous to follow along with Esme as she collected these lost words, speaking with women from different classes, all with different experiences, and recording the way they spoke. There’s some really good commentary here on who gets to decide which words are important, or even who gets to define them.

The first third of the novel was slow, and difficult to engage with. Williams takes her time in setting her scene, and establishing her characters, but I did feel it could have benefitted from a little bit of urgency. The chapter titles help us understand which part of history we’re exploring, but the prose itself doesn’t lend itself to historical fiction until further in the book. Until then (unless you’re well-versed on the history and origins of the dictionary), we could have been dealing with any moment in time.

As we progressed, the plot became much more engaging, however Williams had an odd tendency to create events within the plot which we weren’t given permission to experience first-hand. There were some really important things which happened, and we didn’t learn of them until we stumbled across a memory, or a bit of dialogue. Although I believe interpretation is important, and being modest as an author can lead to some real intrigue, I really felt some of these events had enough merit to be laid out in full for the reader.

Nevertheless, a wonderful premise, and a heartbreaking view of an entire life dedicated to the importance of words.