The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams


The backdrop of this book is the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary with a mix of fictional characters and historical figures. It begins when the fictional Esme was a child spending hours under a work table in the building where James Murray and others worked to create the dictionary. They reviewed words suggested by volunteers for the dictionary, wrote definitions, and verified the published examples of uses of each word. Dr. Murray decreed that words suggested for inclusion be written on 4″ by 6″ slips of paper. Esme spent her days in the “Scriptorium” where they worked because her father was a member of the team and her mother had died. Lizzie, who worked in the Murray household, took care of Esme, though she was not much older than Esme herself.

Along with issues relating to which words were qualified to be in the dictionary, we follow the events of the life of a woman born in the late 19th century and the social upheavals of her times:  suffrage and the Great War in particular. Esme, her family, and friends come to life so that their sorrows become our sorrows. This is one of those books that is successful at creating particular characters that illustrate a larger point in a satisfying way.

Esme is set on the path of making her own collection of words by finding and stashing the slip with the word “bondswoman” that fell into her hands under the table. This word was lost by accident, but Esme learned that words pertaining to women that she recognized as important were sometimes excluded. She became especially interested in the words used in Lizzie’s world, and began going with her to the market to talk to the women who sold goods. It was Lizzie’s use of “knackered” Esme first recorded on a slip. Lizzie initially said it meant tired, but not just tired from lack of sleep, but tired from physical work. Esme recorded Lizzie’s use of the word on the slip:  “I get up before dawn to make sure everyone in the big house will be warm and fed when they wake and I don’t go to sleep until they is snoring. I feel knackered half the time, like a worn-out horse, no good for nothing. –Lizzie Lester, 1902.” Lizzie was pleased to see that something she said had been written down.

Pip Williams was born in Britain, grew up in Australia, and set her book in the most British setting you could imagine. There is a fleeting connection to Australia which is elaborated on at the end. It was notable that Esme’s father read, The Getting of Wisdom written in 1910 by Henry Handel Richardson, the pseudonym of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson. The father describes it this way to Esme, “an Australian novel about a bright young woman. It’s hard to believe a man wrote it.” Very perceptive of him.

The Wikipedia page describing the creation of the OED is good background. The author’s note mentions Simon Winchester’s book The Professor and the Madman. The author said she tried to capture a bit about the historical figures in the book, and mentions in particular Edith Thompson, a dedicated volunteer who was very active in contributing words from the beginning until the publication of the last (1884 to 1928). The character who is Esme’s godmother is based on her.

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words, Ballantine Books, 2021, 376 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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