“In 1901, the word bondmaid was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.”
Pip Williams’ meticulously researched debut novel follows the story of Esme Nicoll, a young lexicographer-to-be who devotes her life to an alternative dictionary. Esme spends her childhood under the sorting table in the Scriptorium, the shed in editor James Murray’s Oxford backyard where he and his assistants are assembling the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, falling in love with words and collecting the occasional slips that float down unnoticed.
Each misplaced, discarded or neglected word is dotingly placed by Esme into an old wooden trunk, and as she enters her teens, she becomes more obsessed with which words make it into the dictionary and which don’t.
The novel is set as the Great War looms and the women’s suffrage movement is gathering momentum, with this illicit collection of words becoming the theme as Esme crosses into womanhood and learns that “all words are not equal”. The history of English is often told through the lens of white men, and in 19th and 20th-century England, they were the people in charge of the words. Williams’ book gently highlights that the lack of representation of women in this respected tome was due to structural biases rather than deliberate omission.
Based on the true events of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Dictionary of Lost Words is a deeply engaging novel that combines a love of language with a cast of richly realised characters and relationships. Esme is a relatable character, intelligent yet imperfect; fighting to give women’s words their proper place in the English language while navigating friendship, love and loss. Esme’s relationship with her father, a companionable relationship of equals, is one of the novel’s greatest elements.
At its heart, The Dictionary of Lost Words is about unspoken words, forgotten meanings and the tragedy of words that are left behind. Williams’ exquisite storytelling will keep you hooked, and lovers of language will get a kick out of the historical provenance of various words.
The Dictionary of Lost Words has received a multitude of well-deserved accolades in recent months, catapulting it to one of the most successful books to come out during lockdown. Experience this novel for yourself rather than getting swept away by the hype. Take the time to savour the breathtaking detail and lose yourself in words, one lost word at a time.
The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams, is published by Affirm Press.
Sumudu Narayana is a freelance editor and beta reader based in Adelaide.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.