Summary and book reviews of The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The Dictionary of Lost Words

by Pip Williams

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams X
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
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  • Published:
    Apr 2021, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Book Summary

In this remarkable debut based on actual events, as a team of male scholars compiles the first Oxford English Dictionary, one of their daughters decides to collect the "objectionable" words they omit.

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. Young Esme's place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip, and when she learns that the word means "slave girl," she begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.

As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women's and common folks' experiences often go unrecorded. And so she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: the Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.

Set during the height of the women's suffrage movement and with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. Inspired by actual events, author Pip Williams has delved into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell this highly original story. The Dictionary of Lost Words is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.

May 1887

Scriptorium. It sounds as if it might have been a grand building, where the lightest footstep would echo between marble floor and gilded dome. But it was just a shed, in the back garden of a house in Oxford.

Instead of storing shovels and rakes, the shed stored words. Every word in the English language was written on a slip of paper the size of a postcard. Volunteers posted them from all over the world, and they were kept in bundles in the hundreds of pigeon-holes that lined the shed walls. Dr. Murray was the one who named it the Scriptorium—he must have thought it an indignity for the English language to be stored in a garden shed—but everyone who worked there called it the Scrippy. Everyone but me. I liked the feel of Scriptorium as it moved around my mouth and landed softly between my lips. It took me a long time to learn to say it, and when I finally did nothing else would do.

Da once helped me search the pigeon-holes for scriptorium. We found five slips with ...

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The main action spans the 40 years of the original composition of the OED. That scope means that there is a lot of skipping forward in time, with subsequent chapters often set a year or a few years into the future. While Williams effectively presents the sweep of Esme's life, I wished I could spend more time with this character on ordinary days. Along with the history of the dictionary, I most appreciated the relationships Esme has with the various women in her life. Women's bonds and women's words are strong themes in this forthrightly feminist novel that, despite its flaws, would make a great book club selection...continued

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(Reviewed by Rebecca Foster).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In Williams's exuberant, meticulously researched debut, the daughter of a lexicographer devotes her life to an alternative dictionary....Though this sweeping effort takes some time to build momentum, the payoff is deeply satisfying. Williams's feminist take on language will move readers.

Kirkus Reviews
Williams provides readers with detailed background and biographical information pointing to extensive research about the OED and its editors, many of whom appear as characters in Esme's life. The result is a satisfying amalgam of truth and historical fiction. Who tells your story? Williams illuminates why women needed to be in the room where, and when, it's written.

Author Blurb Marie Benedict, New York Times bestselling author of The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
What a compelling, fresh look at historical women! In Pip Williams's lyrically written novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, readers explore the creation of the so-called definitive Oxford English Dictionary through the eyes of Esme, a fictional female laborer on that great endeavor, and as her eyes open to the flaws and gender biases in the selection of included words and the definitions themselves, so do readers'. This marvelous exploration into the ways in which spoken and written language impact us is a delight and an education.

Author Blurb Susan Wiggs, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost and Found Bookshop
This charming, inventive, and utterly irresistible novel is the story we all need right now. Words have never mattered more, as Pip Williams illuminates in her unforgettable debut.

Author Blurb Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's List
What a novel of words, their adventure, and their capacity to define and, above all, challenge the world. There will not be this year a more original novel published. I just know it.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Reading About Dictionaries and Lost Words

Pip Williams was prompted to write The Dictionary of Lost Words, a novel including historical detail about words omitted from the Oxford English Dictionary, by reading Simon Winchester's 1998 book The Professor and the Madman and wondering where women were in the story of the dictionary. Below is some background on Winchester's book as well as some additional works about dictionaries and words that have been lost from their pages — or just fallen out of regular usage.

The Professor and the Madman cover The Professor and the Madman focuses on a niche, though fascinating, incident. For two decades, Professor James Murray, editor of the OED, corresponded with Dr. William Chester Minor, one of thousands of volunteers who sent in quotations for the dictionary's ...

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