Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Dictionary of Lost Words

 The Dictionary of Lost Words: A Novel Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Many years ago when I was working in a school library one of the teachers was teaching a unit on biographies. Each student would write about a person.  She told her students that they could pick anyone "but a dead white man."  And then she told me so I could direct the students to "someone else."  Because if you think of it, history is written by white men, by the victors, but in order for there to be a victor there had to be another side, another view, another hope.  I thought of that while reading The Dictionary of Lost Words.

The Oxford English Dictionary took decades to compile.  Words were collected by white men, mostly elderly, and a word could only be included if at some point in history it could be proven to have been written down. Sometimes it took years to collect, study and validate a single word.  The men worked for many, many years in a garden shed in Oxford.   Esme's father was one of these men.

Esme grew up sitting under the table in the shed listening to the men parse a word, listening to the scratch of their pens, learning just by observing,  the system of filing  and compiling.  She grew up with words.  One day a word written on one of their slips fell to the floor.  It said, "bondmaid" and she put it in her pocket and then into her trunk of treasures hidden under a bed.  When she learned what the word meant 'slave girl' she realized there were words that were not included because they were spoken, no one had written down the words spoken amongst the vendors in the market or shops or just understood by mostly women.   

Esme realized the Oxford dictionary would not contain all words, as the men said it would.  It wouldn't contain the words common women used.  Women who didn't know how to write them down, and didn't need to because the words were learned by speaking them.  Esme took paper and pencil out into the world of women and started to write down everything she didn't understand for her own dictionary of lost words.  She asked for meanings when it wasn't apparent, she asked for words to be used in a sentence, and she wrote them down.

The story takes place just before the first World War and during the Suffragist movement in England.  Esme is out of her comfort zone but then again, no she isn't.  She is with her words.  This book is fascinating.  The only word I can think of.


  1. Hello, I've just come across your blog and am enjoying it. Waving to you from Edinburgh in Scotland.

  2. This one sounds really interesting.....I wonder if it's available as an Audiobook

  3. I think it is available on audible. I have considered reading it.