Review Blog

Oct 27 2020

The dictionary of lost words by Pip Williams

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Affirm Press, 2020. ISBN: 9781925972597.
(Age: Secondary/Adult) Recommended. The story of Esme is set against a time of immense change for women in Britain. She is part of the tide sweeping the nation as it grapples with women's suffrage then braces for war, a war which saw an acceleration of those changes when women were drafted into the workforce.
Esme sits with her lexicographer father as he works in the Scriptorium, a shed in Oxford where words are collected, discussed, debated and given a place in the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, or sometimes cast aside. Sitting beneath the table where the scholars work, young Esme comes across a rejected slip with the word 'bondmaid' and she scoops it up to put in Lizzie's trunk, the first of many words pertaining to women, rejected by the lexicographers. Lizzie has looked after her since her mother died, and Esme questions whether Lizzie is a bondmaid, a question which keeps resurfacing.
Over the years, Esme becomes one of the researchers in the Scriptorium, a position usually only taken by men and she needs special permission to enter the Oxford libraries, usually only open to men. She meets an actress and is often seen at the theatre watching her, only to become pregnant to her brother. Her child is adopted by a couple who then move to Adelaide, and Esme returns to her life in the Scrippy. Over the years she becomes more aware of the position women have in society and emboldened, argues, usually unsuccessfully, for words to be included in the dictionary.
She keeps on collecting words that are rejected, and she collects some for herself. Her ear becomes attuned to new words, especially by women unnoticed by scholars, and she writes them down with an example of its use along with the author of the word and the date. Lizzie's trunk becomes a repository of women's words, words that will never find a place in the dictionary being compiled.
This wonderful tale, with the endearing characters of Esme and Lizzie set alongside the reality of the Scriptorium, Dr Murray and his researchers, resonates with authenticity as we watch the compiling of this dictionary paralleling the emancipation of women but oblivious to it. It is ironic that such a momentous change is barely recognised by these men sitting in judgement over which words will be included, and Esme's lost words underscore this irony, her 'Dictionary of Lost Words' published privately by her husband as a token of his love and esteem.
Throughout the story, words are presented which provoke thought and deliberation, bringing the reader to question why these were not included, and giving another layer of interest to an already highly involving story.
Themes: Women's suffrage, Emancipation, World War One, Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford, Lexicography.
Fran Knight

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