The Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words


Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, Esme spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of lexicographers are gathering words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary.

Esme's place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day, she sees a slip containing the word bondmaid flutter to the floor, unclaimed. Esme seizes the word and hides it in an old wooden trunk that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.

Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings related to women's experiences often go unrecorded. She begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

Set when the women's suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It's a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape our experience of the world.

Our Review

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a richly detailed book made for bookworms and lovers of language. One of the things I love about reading new books is discovering new words and their meanings, so this book was ideal.

“Some words are more important than others – I learned this, growing up in the Scriptorium. But it took me a long time to understand why.”

 Esme is not like other girls. She is an outsider, and she knows it. The only place she feels at home is in a garden shed in Oxford named The Scriptorium. In it her father and a team of lexicographers are composing the first ever Oxford English Dictionary.

“I looked around The Scriptorium and imagined it as a genie’s lamp. It was so ordinary on the outside, but on the inside full of wonder.”

Esme spends her time sat under the table watching the feet of the men who work in The Scriptorium and trying to keep herself out of trouble.

Until one day Esme finds a slip with the word Bondmaid written on it and discovers the simple truth.

Not all words are equal. Some words are considered unworthy of being recorded – in particular those words used frequently by women and relating to their experiences.

Esme begins to collect such words and in doing so collates ‘The Dictionary of Lost Words. ‘

“Menstruosity was the condition of being menstruous. And menstruous had once meant filthy or polluted.

Menstruous. Like monstrous. It came close to explaining how I felt.”

The above word was one of many whose origins shocked and angered me.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is one of a spate of recent novels outlining the experiences the of women who so often have been omitted from the history books and Pip Williams does a phenomenal job. History comes to life in the form of Esme, Lizzie, Mabel and Ditte, among others.

Esme is unconventional but she finds her home among the words, a way of defining herself as she in turn defines the words.

“I often wonder what kind of slip I would be written on if I was a word, something too long, certainly. Probably the wrong colour. A scrap of paper that didn’t quite fit. I worried that perhaps I would never find my place in the pigeon-holes at all.”

The Dictionary of Lost Words was remarkable and certainly cannot be described as somnolent or soniferous.


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