The Dictionary of Lost Words: A Novel

by Pip Williams

Paperback, 2022




Ballantine Books (2022), 416 pages


"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."--Publisher.… (more)


½ (518 ratings; 4)

Media reviews

Historical Novel Society
[A] masterfully written, beautiful first novel that tells a fascinating story of language, love and loss.
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Manhattan Book Review (starred review)
The writing is glorious; I dog-eared many pages as I read, marking passages that helped me see words in a new way.
The novel you’ve been waiting for without even realizing it . . . Williams will convince you of a word’s importance in a most lovely and charismatic story.
Kirkus Reviews
Williams provides readers with detailed background and biographical information pointing to extensive research about the [Oxford English Dictionary] and its editors, many of whom appear as characters in Esme’s life. The result is a satisfying amalgam of truth and historical fiction.
A lexicographer’s dream of a novel, this is a lovely book to get lost in, an imaginative love letter to dictionaries.
Williams turns history as we know it on its head in this delightful debut, spotlighting those women and their contributions, using the awe-inspiring power of words themselves to illuminate them.
Publishers Weekly
In Williams’s exuberant, meticulously researched debut, the daughter of a lexicographer devotes her life to an alternative dictionary. . . . Williams’s feminist take on language will move readers.
Library Journal (Starred Review)
Enchanting, sorrowful, and wonderfully written, the book is a one-of-a-kind celebration of language and its importance in our lives. A must-have.
Boston magazine
This remarkable novel tries to rectify a glaring oversight in the historical accounts of the first Oxford English Dictionary—the contributions of women . . . without whom the English language wouldn’t have evolved as fully and colorfully as it has.
The New York Times Book Review
Delightful . . . [a] captivating and slyly subversive fictional paean to the real women whose work on the Oxford English Dictionary went largely unheralded.

User reviews

LibraryThing member kayanelson
A perfectly respectable book but for some reason I couldn’t relate to the characters. Although the book is historically based on the Oxford English Dictionary first publication, I just had trouble engaging with the topic.
LibraryThing member JulieStielstra
Oscillating between 3 and 4 stars. As an enthusiastic word nerd, I loved Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman (as did Williams, and it steered her into this novel) and Kory Stamper's Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. As a whole, I 3'd it (liked it), and 4'd (really liked)
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big parts of it.

The dictionary sections are delightful: finding words (literally, slips of paper with words written on them fluttered to the floor to be forgotten or lost or discarded), thinking about words, talking about words, and their meanings - and why some words are "worthy" and some aren't, especially when it comes to "women's words" - words used by or about women, who understand them in different ways. Esme is one of a very few women involved in the production of the Oxford English Dictionary, and she collects these "lost words," because to her, they are important, even as the mostly intelligent, decent, well-intentioned men around her may not think so.

But I think Williams tries to do too much. There is a subplot around the women's suffrage movement in the early 20th century, but it doesn't really go much of anywhere within this particular story. Esme falls pregnant by a man she likes but isn't in love with (occasioning some rather purple erotic maundering), refuses an abortion, and gives birth to a daughter (further and even more treacly maundering about "Her" - Williams's capitalization) who is given over to an admirable couple for adoption. Finally Esme does fall in love, awkwardly and rather heavy-handedly unable to find words for it, with a perfectly nice, kind, patient, loving fellow... [SPOILER!] just in time for World War I to kill him off, and the opportunity for Williams to write up some eloquent letters about the horrors of the war. In these sections, Williams teeters precariously on the brink of "historical fiction chick lit," a genre that tends to subtract stars for me.

Nevertheless, I looked forward to picking it up in the evenings. I enjoyed it in a not-very-emotional way... the only incidents that plucked at my heartstrings were the sudden death of a gentle-hearted lexicographer who always wore mismatched socks, and of Esme's lovely, kind father. Still, a much better-than-average piece of historical fiction that is not about the middle ages or WWII, with lots of little pleasures for the word nerds among us.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
Williams's novel focuses on Esme Nicholl, the daughter of one of the lexicographers working on the first edition of The Oxford Dictionary in the late (19th century. (If you've read The Professor and the Madman, you'll have some insight into this world.) Esme is seven when the story begins. Her
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mother died when she was very young, and she has no memory of her but is cared for by Lizzie Lester, the housemaid/nanny to whom she becomes very attached. Lizzie is just a child herself, only 13. Every day, Esme accompanies her father to the Scriptorium, a shed where most of the sorting and editing takes place. She loves to sit under the sorting table, watching the men's feet and occasionally picking up a fallen slip of paper on which a word has been written. Most of these words have been discarded, but a few have fallen to the floor by accident. Lizzie begins to collect them in a small trunk under Lizzie's bed. She calls it her Dictionary of Lost Words.

In many ways, this is a coming of age novel. We watch as the rather privileged Esme learns how life is very different for Lizzie and the female vendors in the market, and she becomes fascinated with the particulars of their language. Many of the words she collects are "women's words" that she has never heard before. She begins to collect them as the lexicographers do: on a slip of paper with a definition and a sentence using the word that is attributed to the writer (or in many cases, for Esme, the speaker). As one would expect in a coming of age story, the book includes a school experience that deeply affects Esme, several meaningful friendships and a couple of lust/love stories, and a growing awareness of her place in the world and the inequality of classes and genders. The novel's time frame brings in key elements of roughly 1907 to 1928, including World War I and the struggle for women's suffrage. Through all this, Esme's love of words and their various meanings and usages continues to grow.

I can't mention the few things that annoyed me about this book without giving away too much, but overall, I thought it was quite well done and a very enjoyable read.
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LibraryThing member EowynA
This novel takes place during the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED, and many of the people who created it appear. It is profoundly, and at its core, a book about words and their place. We follow Esme Nicoll starting at age 6, when she's playing beneath the table in the Scriptorium
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where the OED is being created. And that dictionary is a thread throughout her life and beyond.

This is a very calm novel, filled with the everyday needs of drinking tea, doing errands, and talking with friends. Through Esme's experiences, we become conscious that men and women have different experiences, sometimes using the same words differently, and sometimes with different words. Esme collects those words, allowing herself to see and define words that the Victorian white men creating that dictionary didn't include. In the course of the book, the women's suffrage movement reaches Oxford, and then the World War. And life goes on.

A stunning book - quiet and revolutionary.
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LibraryThing member bell7
Esme grows up at the Scriptorium where her father works for the dictionary, hiding under the table as men attempt to define the English language. Starting with grabbing a fallen slip for "bondmaid," Esme begins collecting words of all sorts - but particularly those that are overlooked.

I love words
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and dictionaries, and I knew from the start that this would be a near-perfect book for me. Esme's coming-of-age story is a good read, but the real strength of the book is the meditation on language, what "makes it" into the dictionary and polite usage, and the words that don't because they're spoken by the poor and illiterate or by women or are considered vulgar (but are no less part of the language). "Bondmaid" really was accidentally left out of the dictionary, and other details about the dictionary's making and the words included or left out, are accurate, allowing the fictional character of Esme to blend seamlessly with historical characters. As Esme grows into adulthood and older and the dictionary gets closer to completion, both the first World War and women's fight for suffrage bring into relief the inadequacy of language to fully express the totality of human experience.
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LibraryThing member Herenya
This begins in 1886, when Esme is four years old. Her father is one of the lexicographers working at the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford, collecting and defining words for the Dictionary. Esme grows up with a fascination for words. She begins to collect words that the Dictionary leaves out --
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words overlooked, dismissed or never considered.

This is engrossing -- a poignant story of childhood during the late 19th century and womanhood in the early 20th century, and an absolutely fascinating insight into the decades-long process behind the first Oxford English Dictionary.

I liked that Esme has people in her life who love and support her and are there for her in difficult times. But I thought the ending was intensely sad and I am trying to work out why that made me disappointed and unhappy. There are stories I love which have sad endings? And this ending fits its story?

(Have I just encountered my fill of such endings?)

The Scriptorium felt magical, like everything that ever was and ever could be had been stored within its walls. Books were piled on every surface. Old dictionaries, histories and tales from long ago filled the shelves that separated one desk from another, or created a nook for a chair. Pigeon-holes rose from the floor to the ceiling. They were crammed full of slips, and Da once said that, if I read every one, I’d understand the meaning of everything.
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LibraryThing member Kathl33n
I found this an odd read. The subject matter was really interesting but for some reason it didn't hold my interest. I think the characters may have been a bit off. The events of their lives just seemed to happen perfunctorily and without any real emotion; or at least any emotion that I connected
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to. Most fascinating though was the historical beginnings of the first dictionaries. Really interesting reading! The publisher provided my with an advanced copy of this book.
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LibraryThing member ladycato
I received a copy of his book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Brilliantly written, thoroughly researched, deeply emotional. The Dictionary of Lost Words is an incredible work of literary and historical fiction.

The lead character, Esme, grows up with the Oxford English Dictionary. Motherless,
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curious, she spends many of her earliest days playing and observing beneath the desk of her father in the 'Scriptorium,' set up in a shed on the Oxford grounds. It's there she finds the abandoned slip for 'bondmaid' and begins collecting more words. At first, she steals discards from the Scriptorium, but as she grows up, she realizes there are lost words everywhere--words deemed too crude or low class to be included the decades-long labor of the dictionary, words especially used by women and the dismissed of society. She collects her words along with life experiences.

This is a profound book, truly. It's about words, and people, and love, and loss. It's never preachy, but the messages are there. The way everything is delicately laced together is a marvel. The end of the book made me weepy more than once. There are some terrible tragic turns, and then--the very ending is a surprise culmination that resolves everything with stunning sweetness.
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LibraryThing member sleahey
In this most engrossing historical fiction, the story unfolds about the creation of the legendary Oxford English Dictionary, spanning decades before and after the turn of the 20th century. At the center is the fictional character of Esme, the daughter of one of the hardworking contributors to the
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dictionary. It becomes obvious to Esme, who has grown up in her father's workplace, that the dictionary is a product of a male dominated sensibility and leaves out words pertaining to women, especially if they are considered "vulgar." Thanks to her friendship with her housemaid caregiver, she undertakes to collect those words and attribute them to the people who use them. The construction of the OED is certainly fascinating, made all the more so by the personal stories of the characters, both real and fictitious. During Esme's journey from a very young girl into adulthood, the challenges she faces along the way include her relationships with people very different from her, romance, motherhood, sympathy for the suffragette movement, closeness with her father and their shared love of words, and grief. Williams has skillfully woven the various themes into a well-paced novel about characters we care about with a backdrop of an eventful time in history.
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LibraryThing member tamidale
I’ve come to realize that I have taken the dictionary for granted. Who hasn’t picked up a dictionary to check spelling or to make sure the word is the correct one for the meaning you want to convey? I have never stopped to wonder about all the work involved in publishing the dictionary—much
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less the first dictionary.

Readers will enter the world of words through Esme, a young girl without a mother, who goes to work with her father until she is old enough for school. Her father is a lexicographer who is working on the first dictionary. It is painstaking work and takes several workers years to complete. During this time Esme grows up amongst the words, fascinated by the different meanings and becoming attached to some of the words.

Once old enough, there is no question Esme will work with her father. It’s all she knows, it’s her world and she is qualified. As Esme enters her adult years, she faces a devastating time in her life. Through the love of her Aunt Dittie, her father and Lizzie, her friend and longtime caretaker, Esme is cared for and loved until she is strong once again.

Esme falls in love and marries, but WWI gets in the way of her life with her new husband. During this challenging time, Esme uses words and their meaning to comfort wounded soldiers. Through it all, Lizzie, Aunt Dittie and Esme’s work family of lexicographers offer her support and encouragement as many changes come her way.

I loved the caring and supportive relationships portrayed in this novel. I also learned so much about what was involved in publishing the first dictionary. Of course, the dictionary will never be finished as our language is constantly changing, but rest assured, there are people who are taking note and adding our new words and dropping those that have fallen out of use. I highly recommend this to historical fiction lovers and those who are intrigued by words.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing-Ballantine for allowing me to read an advance copy and offer my honest review.
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LibraryThing member kimkimkim
Such a ponderous task - rewriting a dictionary

The task started in 1887 in a scriptorium, a glorified shed, which is likened to a writing room in a monastery. The monks in this monastery are known as lexicographers. Along with their assistants it will take them a lifetime before they will celebrate
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a final printing of their task, The Oxford English Dictionary, and before the ink is dry a new writing will begin. These people who capture and promote our language understand that words change; not only their appearance and sound but their meaning. Words have a history and it is the job of these men and women to find consensus for the best meaning of any given word. It will define our understanding of every word, phrase and sentence. Think of the power of being able to define a word.

Pip Williams has found a way to impart the history of how the Dictionary was created while weaving an interesting story about Esme, a young girl who, as a child, plays under the lexicographer’s table collecting fallen slips of paper with words on them. Growing into a role she has unwittingly been groomed for Esme becomes a natural and astute collaborator always willing to work a little harder hoping for just a little more than what Victorian society allows. She develops her own contacts, some outside the pall of acceptable society. She has a keen ear for words and phrases foreign to her experience, some rough and crude of the lower working class. Without judgement she begs the question; “Can you put it in a sentence?” She knows she has to get it right because “everything that comes after the first utterance is a corruption.”

William’s brilliant proposition that women’s words are treated differently to those of men gives this book great depth and perspective. She leaves no doubt that the Oxford English Dictionary is a man’s work and true to their gender while greatly overlooking a meaningful female interpretation. It begs the question whether each gender will have a more equitable and complete representation in the newest rewrite and revision.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a treasure. It is interesting, informative, well researched while successfully telling a women’s coming of age story at the onset of the twentieth century. Thank you NetGalley and Ballantine Books for a copy.
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LibraryThing member TerryWeyna
This historical novel is set at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, when the Oxford English Dictionary was being edited and published. All of the editors are men, of course, but Esme, the daughter of one of the editors, is a fixture from the time she is six years old. She spends her time
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under the table at which the editors work, picking up slips (the 6X4 pieces of paper that hold sentences using the word at issue, or a topslip with the full definition of the word) that fall to her and absconding with them. As she grows and her intellect proves to be formidable, so does her interest in the dictionary.

It was a difficult time for women. They didn't have the vote, and they were fighting for it. They didn't get paid anything near what men were paid. They had no sexual freedom. An unintended pregnancy in a single young woman could destroy her for life. Some women had virtually no choice but to be "in service" -- employed by a household as a maid or cook and stuck there for life -- which leads to fascinating discussion of the term "bondmaid," a touchstone for the entire novel.

I loved Esme, who tells her story in a first person narrative, though letters and other documents provide us with other viewpoints from time to time. I loved her independence and her determination. Most of all, I loved her collecting "women's words" -- some profane, some slang, many of which are alternative meanings for words in ways that men never use them. The book is a fascinating meditation on how words form us, our expectations, our thoughts, our senses of what is possible without ever lapsing into a full-fledged disquisition on this topic -- it's all in the story.

This is undoubtedly one of the best books I will read in 2021. I'm tempted to say that it's a marvelous book for women -- and it is -- but men will enjoy it, too, particularly if they're interested in finding out about women's lives. It would be a great book club book, too, especially as it's apparently already out in paperback.

I received an advance reading copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member JanaRose1
Esme's father is one of a handful of men working on the first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme grows up among the scraps of paper, quotations, and catalog of words. When one word bondmaid slips under the table, Esme takes it for herself. This is only the beginning of her collecting discarded and
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neglected words.

This was a well written and engaging book. Esme was a dynamic character, who grew throughout. The author did a great job with the passing of time and time transitions. I look forward to reading more from this author. Overall, 5 out of 5 stars.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
"Words are like stories, don't you think Mr. Sweatman? They change as they are passed from mouth to mouth; their meanings stretch or truncate to fit what needs to be said."

At the end of the 19th century, Esme spends her days beneath the Sorting table in the Scriptorium, where her father and other
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men worked on the Oxford English Dictionary. She soaked up the words that were and weren't going to be included and the reasons for that decision and it occurred to her that some unusual words used by women and the poor weren't being included in the book at all. This became a lifelong quest for her.

Now you might think a book about words in a dictionary might be, I don't know, boring? Slow-paced? Ho-hum? Oh how wrong you'd be. Australian author Pip Williams has managed to write a compelling tale of such excellence, that I was completely immersed from beginning to end. Esme is a wonderful character, one of several terrific characters that emerge in this very accurate historical fiction about the ways the OED came to life.

Along the way we delve into the suffragette movement and WWI, and the effects both had not only on the population but on the OED too. Throw in a good love story and you've got it all, really.

I could go on and on because this was one wonderful book. Richly drawn characters, interesting plot lines, beautiful language. Oh and there may have been a need for Kleenex. Just saying.
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LibraryThing member khenkins
What a delightful and thought-provoking book! The story of how the Oxford English Dictionary went through its extremely labor-intensive process to becoming a reality is the backdrop for the narrative of a young woman growing into maturity in the late 1800s. Esme's father is a lexicographer working
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with James Murray and other men on the OED, and being motherless, she spends many hours of each day in the Scriptorium ( a large shed!) where the work is done. Pip Williams conducted extensive historical research on the creation of the OED. It is through her effort that I learned there were women scholars who were consistent contributors of entries to the dictionary – though they were never editors.

Esme and her father are fictional, but the majority of the book is historically accurate, including the Suffrage movement and WWI. Early on, Esme discovers that some words, lacking verifiable evidence in print, are left out of the dictionary. Many of these words are more relevant to women than to men, apparently, and many that Esme decides to collect independently are informal, used in speech, generally by people without much traditional education. Esme is fortunate to have three strong women as friends: Lily, a servant; an actress suffragette, and the unforgettable Covered Market vendor Mabel.

Some readers may find the detailed description of the Scriptorium work too slow, but Oxford, Bath, the Women's Vote movement, World War I, love and loss all animate this work. Today, we know the words entered in Esme's Dictionary were important to record, lest they be forgotten along with, perhaps, the time, people and context in which they lived. The Dictionary of Lost Words colors the world of the OED more brightly and fully than any other book to date.

I received this book from Random House and Netgalley. This is an honest review.
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LibraryThing member clue
The author says she began this book with two simple questions: Do words mean different things to men and women? And if they do, is it possible that we have lost something in the process of defining them?

In 1887 work begins on the first [Oxford English Dictionary]. Esme's father is one of the
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lexicographers. She goes along to work with him because her mother has died and she is too young to be left alone. She often sits on her father's lap as he works but eventually begins to spend most of her day under the table the lexicographers work around. The words under consideration for the dictionary are written on individual pieces of paper and in addition to the name of the submitter, a definition and a sentence showing it's use will be included.

Esme enjoys being under the table because words that won't be included will come floating down under it as they are discarded. After the word bondsmaid comes down Esme realizes this word could apply to a kind woman who among other things, makes their lunch. Esme begins saving the discarded slips and hides them in a trunk. As she becomes older she realizes that a large number of the words that won't be included are related to women or common people.

Esme begins to think about publishing her own dictionary and begins to search for words that would not be included in the Oxford Dictionary. She talks to market vendors and other common people, collecting their words. The plot follows Esme through experiences all young women did and still do experience, friendships, relationships with men, war, pregnancy, death, and women's rights including suffrage.

There are so many reasons I like this book. It was well researched and learning the process the lexicographers used and the dedication they had to this incredible undertaking was fascinating. Some characters were drawn from actual people although Esme and her father were not. The author successfully captured the time and the social restraints placed on women from the late 1880s through the early 1900s. For sure this will be one of my favorite books this year.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
What an absolute gem of a book! Historical fiction, set around the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The author uses the setting to shine a light on the (restricted) life of women of the era, with a little history (suffragette movement and WW1)
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and a little of the different possible outcomes for women of different classes.
The writing is crisp and sharp. The obvious enjoyment of playing with words is a delight. The different voice of the godmother's letters is brilliantly done.
The emphasis on the role of women might suggest a predominantly female audience, but this aging male loved it.
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LibraryThing member PriscillaM
I enjoyed this book. Esme was a fictitious likeable character inserted into the story of the development of The Oxford Dictionary, which gave the story warmth, specially with her close friendship with the ever serving Lizzie, her adored father, activist Tildy. It is certainly fascinating learning
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how the words and definitions were decided on for inclusion. The events leading to the books conclusion I would have wished differently. Very good read.
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LibraryThing member HeatherLINC
At the start, I found this novel very enjoyable. I loved the front cover and descriptions of the Scriptorium, and found the compiling of early dictionaries fascinating. I was also interested in women's words, words that came from the lower class but were rejected by male lexicographers based on
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gender and sociology status.

I know "The Dictionary of Lost Words" is receiving high praise but I felt disconnected all the way through. The plot was slow, especially in the middle, and was quite dry in places jumping quickly through the years. Also, Esme never resonated with me. I found her fairly one dimensional and boring. Instead, I preferred Lizzie and Dittie, two secondary characters.

However, this was a debut novel and the author deserves recognition for the detail, research and love she put into this book. It just wasn't for me.
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LibraryThing member richardderus

My Review: First, read his:
Some words are more than letters on a page, don't you think? They have shape and texture. They are like bullets, full of energy, and when you give one breath you can feel its
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sharp edge against your lip.
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.
A vulgar word, well placed and said with just enough vigour, can express far more than its polite equivalent.

There is an immense gulf between thoughts and words...Esme, as a girl in the almost-all-male world of dictionary-obsessed dad Harry, discovers again and again that the ideas we robe in words aren't seen by those who hear them as we've made them in our minds. The factual world of making the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) presided over by Dr. James Murray is expanded to include a fictional word-mad girl-child whose run-ins with lying adults, oblivious adults, and peers without her ruling passion for The Words We Use are the meat of this delicious, if difficult to deal with at times, novel. Esme Nicholl does not spend her life the way Dr. Murray's typically Victorian daughters do. Her days are spent being educated at school; her afternoons with the men at the Scriptorium as they collate and pigeonhole and excise the tens of thousands of definitions and attestations through usage that arrive in Dr. Murray's home/workhouse from around the world. Careless dropping or deliberate deletion, it makes no never-mind to young Esme. She re-homes them in her treasure-chest, under a housemaid's bed, their shared secret.

The dropped words, Esme notices as her life gives her more analytical tools, are often words commonly used by, among, and about women and their activities. Her world is coming for her, bent on controlling her and bending her to its will. Her Godmother Edith, a factual person really nicknamed Ditte, is a very unconventional woman and a prolific contributor the OED. She's acted as a co-parent, in a limited way, to Esme; yet she fails her when Esme desperately needs her simply because Ditte doesn't live in Oxford, let alone in daily contact with Esme.
“Dr. Murray said you and Beth were proflitic contributors,” I said, with some authority.

“Prolific,” Ditte corrected.

“Is that a nice thing to be?”

“It means we have collected a lot of words and quotations for Dr. Murray’s dictionary, and I’m sure he meant it as a compliment.”

The relationship is pretty tidily encapsulated there. Older mentor, not quite understanding the mentee but giving great guidance anyway; just not quite what was really needed. The words for things are centered; the denotations are generously given, while the connotations are left more or less to Esme's maturing brain to construct as best she can. She is, after all, equipped with well-designed tools...but no manuals to train their user in their best use.

In her word-collecting fever, Esme amasses much raw data, many denotations. Her goal for it remains unfocused until she realizes that the words' connotations give her the needed feminist perspective: she and her half of humanity are doomed to be controlled until they can participate in life as political actors instead of passive observers. Yes, she discovers Feminism and becomes a suffragette. And uses her life-long capacity to work with words to give sharp focus to her purpose.
If war could change the nature of men, it would surely change the nature of words.
“Words change over time, you see. The way they look, the way they sound; sometimes even their meaning changes. They have their own history.”

Something I wish people who fuss over neologisms and redefinitions would process. Things are growing or dying. There is no stasis in natural systems, and no homeostasis doesn't is a finely balanced state but predicated on constant shifts and changes that must support a larger whole's proper, healthy functioning. Just like language...the words are always tip-tilting, reconfiguring themselves, shedding pieces and adding others; but the language as a whole lives and thrives and, broadly, remains the same. Only different.
It struck me that we are never fully at ease when we are aware of another's gaze. Perhaps we are never fully ourselves. In the desire to please or impress, to persuade or dominate, our movements become conscious, our features set.

That snapshot effect, the mask of Persona slid over a person's face, is what Esme is resisting as she rescues rejected and deleted words from the magisterial OED. Her women's words are the ones men most need, and are supremely reluctant, to hear. Esme's project, fictional of course, is the titular dictionary, with words like "menstruation" (simply too earthy and shuddersome for the frail little men making the OED) to "knackered" because it's vulgar and ugly when a more refined person could say "exhausted" or "listless." Esme thinks "bollocks to that" and spends her adulthood on the many pieces that must be moved around and reconfigured to make a society that can even properly think about a way to include women as adult beings.

And herein the reason I don't give this book a five-star warble of ecstasy...the passage of time. It doesn't. I'm herky-jerkyed into different stages of Esme and the world's life but the setting remains...internal. It's The Esme Show, instead of Truman; she's the star and no doubt. But there's a degree of alienation in that. Thank goodness there are so many dates to open chapters! Too bad they don't mean more. It's certainly true that we, in our daily rounds, don't think carefully about where the screens in the piston of our french-press coffeepot come from, or how and when to clean or replace them. But some sense of Esme's adjustments to the world around her, since her project is to effect true change upon it, would've helped me grasp the maturation parts of time's passage. I felt the lack of that connection keenly.

Esme's relationships were also a bit troubling to read for this reason. Lizzie, her female exemplar in residence, was a lower-class girl whose best hopes weren't as high as she's actually risen by working for the Murrays and becoming Esme's comadre. By rights she should be a dead young worn-out whore. So the way the privileged miss and the rough serving girl should practically leap off the page at me, right?
“Me needlework will always be here,” she said. “I see this and I feel…well, I don’t know the word. Like I’ll always be here.”

“Permanent,” I said. “And the rest of the time?”

“I feel like a dandelion just before the wind blows.”
My mother was like a word with a thousand slips. Lizzie’s mother was like a word with only two, barely enough to be counted. And I had treated one as if it were superfluous to need.

It's really the fate of most of us...we vanish into nothingness as soon as we assume room temperature. Ephemeral as life is, what I found wantimg in those perfectly lovely passages was the solidity of Life beating Esme with her own responsibility to and for the older but more vulnerable on a practical life-level woman.

Still and all, I'm so pleased that I read this wonderful story. I think it could have made more of an impact on me had some stylistic choices been made differently; that is always the way with making art, no one can create something as powerful and fully realized as this book is without making choices that won't work for everyone. I felt very strongly the aura of choices and decisions affirmatively, consideredly made at every turn. This is in no way a slapdash or ill-made work of fiction. Its real and its fictional characters are treated with equal gravitas. That the factual characters take up less screen time is a decision that the author and editor clearly planned carefully and executed deftly. I can offer no more heartfelt recommendation than "read this book soon." I *could* have, if certain other, less distancing, choices had been made, turned obnoxious pest and shouted at you to get the book NOW read it on the Jitney or in the Admiral's Club but just GET IT!!

But really, does it get that much better than this?
I thought about all the words I’d collected from Mabel and from Lizzie and from other women: women who gutted fish or cut cloth or cleaned the ladies’ public convenience on Magdalen Street. They spoke their minds in words that suited them, and were reverent as I wrote their words on slips. These slips were precious to me, and I hid them in the trunk to keep them safe. But from what? Did I fear they would be scrutinised and found deficient? Or were those fears I had for myself? I never dreamed the givers had any hopes for their words beyond my slips, but it was suddenly clear that no one but me would ever read them. The women’s names, so carefully written, would never be set in type. Their words and their names would be lost as soon as I began to forget them. My Dictionary of Lost Words was no better than the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons: it hid what should be seen and silenced what should be heard.

Pip Williams: I salute you for writing a grown-up book for real, passionate readers.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
I love books about words, and books about the hidden history of marginalized groups. Mix in interesting, likeable characters and a love story, and I’m totally there for it. The Dictionary of Lost Words is all of these things, and a delight to read.

Esme Nicoll is the fictional protagonist dropped
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into the decades-long effort to develop and publish the Oxford English Dictionary. As a child, Esme spent her days sitting beneath the sorting table in the Scriptorium, where her father worked as a member of the lexicography team. She began collecting words that fell to the floor, discarded for one reason or another. As she grew up, Esme took on more formal roles in the Scriptorium. She also came to the realization that most of her “lost words” were used almost exclusively by women to describe their daily lives. Inspired by the suffrage movement, she began actively collecting words which she hoped would be published someday.

Esme’s life revolved around the development of the dictionary, and this is a very interesting story indeed. But The Dictionary of Lost Words delivers even more through interesting, well-developed characters -- some real, some imagined -- who had a profound impact on her life. The historical backdrop, which included both women’s suffrage and World War I, added even more interest. I was totally immersed in Esme’s life, and strongly affected by her life choices and relationships. This is a lovely, memorable novel -- highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member quondame
I like the idea of this better than I liked reading the book. Esme's story seemed way too contrived to illustrate the points, and however good the points they stuck sharply through the narrative.
LibraryThing member infjsarah
I enjoyed this a lot. It is unexpectedly sad at the end. I did have some issues with it and those were the "issues" which were a bit too much in your face at times. Could have been more subtle. I also felt that some of the characters were portrayed too modern for the time it is supposedly set in.
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But these are small things and for a type of novel I don't normally read, I really did enjoy it.
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Brilliant book. A wonderful story based on an amazing ongoing project. Loved the people real and imagined. Of course the history was amazing as well.
LibraryThing member DidIReallyReadThat
I loved this book. The story of the first edition of the Oxford dictionary combined with the story of the women who contributed to it hit a sweet spot for me. Esme and the relationship with her father was great. Highly recommended.


Dublin Literary Award (Longlist — 2022)
Australian Book Industry Awards (Shortlist — General Fiction — 2021)
ARA Historical Novel Prize (Longlist — Adult — 2020)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

416 p.; 8 inches


1984820745 / 9781984820747
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