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Book Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Intricately researched, this novel explores the making of the Oxford Dictionary. It’s an epic story taking in the years between 1886 and 1928 which is how long it took Professor John Murray and his team of editors, lexicographers and assistants to laboriously put it together via the help of thousands of people around the world who sent in words for inclusion.

The story revolves around Esme Owen who as a five-year-old, sits under the desk while her father and others work on the dictionary compiling, collating and making decisions about words on slips of paper and their definitions. One day, a slip with the word bondmaid, falls to the floor and little Esme scrambles to collect it and instead of giving it up, she stores it away like treasure. From that point, she observes the workers, collecting discarded slips with words which were deemed not to be worthy of inclusion. As she grows up, her secret collection of words grows and she begins to question and wonder why so many discarded words happened to be used by women.

“there is no capacity for the Dictionary to contain words that have no textural source. Every word must have been written down, and you are right to assume they largely come from books written by men.”

Esme is passionate about words and begins her research at local markets searching for words used by everyday women. Her best friend is Lizzie, a maid for the Murray family and she harbours Esme’s secret treasure supporting her friends’ quest but also questions some of her actions.

 The writer skilfully weaves in key historical events such as the women’s movement for the right to vote, class distinction, and World War One. Esme’s life is fictional yet some of the supporting characters are real and reimagined by the author to give us a sympathetic taste of what they might have been like.

I love the idea of language shifting and changing and the recognition that a dictionary can never be static as new words are constantly evolving every day. And what a challenge that must be to keep up to date.

“I spend my days trying to understand how words were used by men long dead, in order to draft a meaning that will suffice not just for our times but for the future.”

It’s a long, slow read at first and action is driven by Esme’s love for words and her observations and at times I wondered if my interest could be retained. It’s as a grown woman that things take a turn with Esme and not always for the better. It was easy to be swept up by the events some scandalous and other deeply moving.  I did find myself wanting to know more about Esme’s hopes and wishes for herself but it moved little beyond her work on the dictionary. I also loved Lizzie and her down to earth nature yet I earned to learn more of her hopes and dreams. However, the real main character must surely be the dictionary itself with a glimpse into the lives of the characters it affected.

I enjoyed this book perhaps even more so because I’d seen the movie entitled The Professor and the Madman based on the book The Surgeon of Crowthorne and I was already in awe of how the dictionary came about. The Dictionary of Lost Words took on a whole new perspective which I appreciated enormously. The research was meticulous, the writing beautiful, and methodical. Check this one out.