Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
4/6/21; 400 pages
Random House Publishing Group

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is highly recommended historical fiction.

In Oxford Esme Nicoll's father, Harry, is on the team of dedicated lexicographers working with Dr. James Murray to collect words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. The team works in a garden shed they have named "the Scriptorium," or the Scrippy, behind Dr. Murray's house. The Scriptorium has been lined with pigeon holes, used to sort the words collected, and the lexicographers work at a sorting table. Esme is being raised by her father after her mother died, and she has grown up at the Scriptorium, spending time under the table when all the lexicographers are working. This is where her father introduced her to words, where she learned to read, and where she learned to love words for their own sake.

Under the table, Esme collected slips with word that had been dropped and she collected duplicate slips that were being discarded. She stored her treasures in a chest under Lizzie's bed. Lizzie is a servant to the Murrays and Esme's friend. When the slip with the word "bondmaid" accidentally falls to the floor, Esme collects it. Once she learned the meaning of the word, she begins to collect words that are omitted from the dictionary. They are objectionable words, neglected words, women's words, and words used by common people not found in print. As she collects these words she also collects a quotation from people using the words correctly. This private collection becomes her own Dictionary of Lost Words.

Set in the years 1887 to 1989, the narration covers not only the work to publish the first Oxford English Dictionary, it also follows events surrounding the women’s suffrage movement and The Great War, WWI. Esme grows up, finds a role in working at the Scriptorium, learns about the suffrage movement, collects her words, falls in love, and sees her dictionary published, with Lizzie a constant in her life through it all. Williams did extensive research into the history of the time and the first Oxford English Dictionary. She includes women in her novel who historically helped with the dictionary alongside the men. Esme, her father, and Lizzie were entirely fictional characters placed into the context of the novel Williams wanted to write.

I would highly recommend this to readers who love historical fiction. The plot moves slowly at first, although it is still interesting as it delves into the process of how the dictionary was put together and the work that was done to accomplish the goal. The writing is quite good as Williams wanted to both write a fictional novel but she also wanted to place it firmly during a time in history. She also wanted to establish from the start Esme's love of words, so this is a main focus for much of the early part of The Dictionary of Lost Words. Once Esme begins working at the Scriptorium and begins to set off on tasks and searches for lost/neglected words, the novel begins to take off.

Esme and Lizzie are both wonderful characters as they portray two different groups of women during this period of time who would have been overlooked by history. Lizzie represents the servant working class. She couldn't read or write down many of the words she used which would have been overlooked by the lexicographers. She is proud of her quotes Esme uses to define words and is a strong woman, physically and mentally even though she definitely would be looked down at as just a servant. Lizzie's first word for Esme's collection is "knackered," a word which she provided the sentence to show it's usage. It is a word that would be in common usage for the working class, but not one that would be part of the dictionary because it would never be put in print.

Esme is the character who we know more about, though. Her inner thoughts, apprehensions, and worries are part of her story, which makes her a fully realized character with depth and insight. She has heartbreaking experiences from which she must gather her own strength in order to recover. The words she seeks out and collects also add an additional aspect and circumspection to her character.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Random House Publishing Group in exchange for my honest opinion.

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