Book Review: “The Dictionary of Lost Words” by Pip Williams

By Małgosia Halliop

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is a fascinating novel that asks questions about what is and isn’t included in that most basic of language tools: the dictionary. It’s a fictional story set within real and specific historical events, and reminds us of the ways even a seemingly neutral document like a dictionary describes the people and culture who create it—including their blind spots and limitations. Williams manages both to honour the tremendous labour that goes into compiling a dictionary, and to argue—from a feminist point of view—for the need to push back against language gatekeepers in order to accurately record the complexity and richness of living language. 

The Dictionary of Lost Words tells the story of Esme Nicoll, whose mother is dead and whose early years have been spent staying close to her “Da” and his work. Esme’s favourite spot is under the sorting table in the Scriptorium, a large converted garden shed in the back garden of a house in Oxford. The tables of the Scriptorium are piled high with books and its walls are lined with hundreds of pigeonholes, each crammed full of bundles of words.

The house and the Scriptorium belong to Dr. James Murray, and the words are being compiled by Esme’s father and a small group of fellow lexicographers to create a dictionary more definitive than Dr. Johnson’s. This will become the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Each word—along with definitions and textual examples—is written on a slip of paper the size of a postcard. Many of the collected slips have been mailed in by volunteer contributors from all over the country. 

One day, a word slip falls off the table, flutters through the air beneath it, and lands on Esme’s lap. Instead of returning the word, Esme asks thirteen-year-old Lizzie, who often takes care of her, to read it. Lizzie, who had to “go into service” when her own mother died, helps Esme sound out the word: bondmaid. Esme hides the word in a trunk under Lizzie’s bed. She asks her father whether she too will go into service when she is older. No, he tells her, struggling to explain: “Lizzie is fortunate to be in service, but for you it would be unfortunate.”

As she gets older, Esme notices other incongruities in her world: words sent in to the dictionary but rejected because they are “not for polite company”; words Lizzie uses that aren’t in the dictionary because they have never been written down; words old Mabel at the covered market uses that turn Lizzie’s face red and that Lizzie refuses to repeat. Esme takes on an official position as a junior assistant for Dr. Murray’s dictionary, but she also starts to collect discarded and rejected words and write up her own slips to record “women’s words” and the words of the poor and illiterate. The trunk under Lizzie’s bed fills up, and the Dictionary of Lost Words is born. 

Pip Williams’s novel was inspired by her discovery of a letter to the editors of the first edition of the OED complaining about a missing word—bondmaid. Williams sets her imaginary story within the pages of real historical events: the bitter fight for women’s suffrage, the loss and grief of the First World War, and the seventy years of meticulous scholarly labour between the date the Oxford English Dictionary was conceived and the date it was published. There’s a matter-of-factness about Esme that is subversive and at times startling—she approaches language, and sometimes life, as a scientist might. Esme gradually steps outside the sheltered world of the university to collect her words, and as her vocabulary stretches, so does her sense of what is possible and permissible in her own personal life and politics.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a story about words: who owns them, how they are defined, which are considered acceptable and which are not, and what’s at stake when only some words and some experiences are deemed worth recording. It’s a story of how experience shapes language, and how language, in turn, shapes experience. It’s a tribute to the unrecognized women involved in the making of the OED, and an alternate history of what a dictionary compiled by women might have looked like. It’s also a love letter to dictionaries, real and imagined, and all the people who have a hand in making them. In sum, it is a stimulating and entertaining read for any of us who love language and spend a lot of time thinking about words and their uses. 

Małgosia Halliop is a writer and editor with a focus on non-profits and purpose-driven businesses. She’s worked in academic publishing, university communications, and as a nature educator.

This article was copy edited by Jane Hodgkinson.

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