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Review: Dictionary of Lost Words

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

4/5 stars

For lovers of words - their history, how they're documented, and who chooses which ones live on in our language.

"This book began as 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?"

- Pip Williams (interview)

This is a book of historical fiction, based on the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Scholars and volunteers worked at Oxford for decades in the 1800's to early 1900's to research and compile all the words in the English language (seemingly). Most were male, but a few notable female volunteers contributed a great many quotations that helped scholars define the words. Set up in a garden shed, renamed The Scriptorium (see photo below), the team of lexicographers, led by James Murray, worked to create the many editions of the first OED.

The fictional part of the story follows Esme - a young girl whose father works in the Scriptorium. Motherless, Esme grows up at her father's feet - literally, as she spends most days under the Scriptorium's table. One day she finds a slip of paper with a word and definition written on it, and secrets it away in her pocket. She continues to gather discarded slips over the years, hiding them in a suitcase under the bed of her nanny, Lizzie (who's just a few years older than Esme herself, but serves as a stand-in mother, friend, and nanny, while she works as a maid for the Murray family). Esme begins to realize that, in the eyes of the all-male "gate keepers" of language, some words are not suitable for the dictionary. As she grows older, she begins to purposefully gather what she calls "women's words" - words (or specific definitions of words) that come from women or have to do with women, but aren't in the dictionary. She goes to the town market with Lizzie, talking with people or overhearing conversations, cataloging new words and their definitions, which she compiles into what she calls The Dictionary of Lost Words.

This secret work is set against the backdrop of the beginnings of the Suffrage movement, and Esme struggles to find her place - wanting nothing more than to continue her life's work of contributing to the OED (while surrounded by men), and also finding ways to support the advancement of women. While some women fight in the streets for the right to vote, Esme recognizes that women's voices are also being silenced by the words that are chosen (or more accurately, NOT chosen) for the dictionary.

Williams does a great job of highlighting the role that women did in fact play in the creation of the OED (most of the women mentioned in the book are based on real people), while also acknowledging all that was lost by having only men in positions of power. She clearly did extensive research, and from what I can glean, it's really very faithful to the historical facts regarding most of the main players in the creation of the OED, and the timeline and events of its publication.

Also, if you love words, you'll definitely learn a few new ones by reading this book, or at least learn some origins/definitions that are new to you. For instance, I didn't realize that the original meaning of "latch-keyed" was "an unchaperoned or undisciplined young woman." I've only ever heard it in the context of a "latch-key kid," with the similar meaning of a child left at home, usually after school, without supervision.


UP NEXT: Re-reading Code Name Verity, and Rose Under Fire,

and then reading the other two in the series, by Elizabeth Wein

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