The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

‘Words are like stories.’

We meet Esme Nicoll in 1887. She is just six years old and surrounded by words. Esme’s mother has died, and she spends time with her father Harry as he works with Dr James Murray and other lexicographers in the ‘Scriptorium’ collating and editing entries for the Oxford English Dictionary.

Esme is fictional, but the Scriptorium and the process of compiling the OED are not. The words, their meanings and their use were submitted on slips of paper. These slips were sorted and debated, and sometimes words were excluded. Esme grows up with this slow process and becomes part of it. She learns that some words (and some meanings) are considered more important than others. Some of the slips are discarded, others are lost, and Esme rescues them.

After a brief period at a restrictive boarding school, Esme returns to Oxford, where she grows to maturity as volumes of the OED are slowly finalised and published. She learns new words from others and takes note of their meaning including a sentence using each word and who said them. Those words not included in the OED are stored in a tin trunk: Esme’s ‘Dictionary of Lost Words’. Some words have different meanings to women than they do to men, other words reflect class and upbringing. The Suffragist movement is part of Esme’s journey, as is the fact and impact of the Great War. Rules and roles change, and the usage and meaning of words continue to evolve.

What can I say about this remarkable novel? I have been intending to read it for ages and once I picked it up, I could not put it down. While I knew a little about the development of the OED, I had not paid as much attention to the society it was set within. The word ‘bondmaid’ is now fixed in my mind: you will need to read the novel to find why.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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