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Monday, October 11, 2021


“The Dictionary of Lost Words” will be included in my all-time favourite reads. Higher praise than that I cannot give this gem of a book. (Review by Fiona de Goede)

The author of The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams, was born in London but currently resides in Australia with her partner and two sons. Whilst doing research into the origin of the Oxford English Dictionary, she discovered that the word “bondmaid” did not make it into the first edition. Her interest was piqued and this marvellous book is the result. 

This is her debut novel and named the 2020 bestselling fiction in Australia – and it is no wonder to see why!

Esme and her Da, as she refers to her father, a lexicographer, live in Oxford where he works in the Scriptorium, with Dr Murray, the head compiler of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Esme sits under the table and hears the men discuss words, their meaning and their origin.

From an early age, this love of words is in her blood and she has a desire to learn as much as possible and understand the different meanings the same word apparently can have for different people. Specifically, how words can mean one thing for men and another for women.

This leads to her collecting all the discarded words and storing them in her treasure box and also prompts her to speak to a variety of people to get their take on words. Their interpretations don’t always match what is included in the OED and her fascination continues to grow.

There are wonderful characters that the reader meets along the way. Lizzie, the maid in the Murray household -she also takes care of Essymay, as she fondly refers to her. Mabel, the old hag in the Covered Market is a valuable source of words that Esme would not ordinarily be exposed to. Tilda, an actress and staunch supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. Esme’s aunt, Edith, a historical researcher and contributor to the OED, whom Esme calls Ditte – as a young child she is unable to pronounce her name correctly and the childhood pet name sticks.

The story spans the years between 1887 and 1928 – the length of time it took to compile the OED. This fact alone should demonstrate the Herculean task these academics undertook, keeping in mind that every word was painstakingly researched, discussed, mulled over and only then the decision was made whether or not it would be included in the OED.

The events that are of historical importance during the compilation years of the OED include the women’s suffrage movement in England as well as World War 1. It is beautifully interwoven into the story of Esme’s life and impacts on the woman she becomes.

What the author manages to do superbly is to take a topic that many would consider dry and boring and make it real, exciting and extremely interesting.

It is fascinating to read about the process of compiling a dictionary – the work that went on in the Scriptorium, the Bodleian Library, at the Oxford University Press, the Old Ashmolean.

Esme and the characters in the book brought these historical places to life and made you feel part of the journey. This is a book that from the very first paragraph draws the reader in and, if like me, you have a love of reading and the meaning of words, this is a must read.

The Dictionary of Lost Words will be included in my all-time favourite reads. Higher praise than that I cannot give this gem of a book. 

The book is published by Penguin Random House ISBN 978-1-784-74387-1 – Fiona de Goede