The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip, and when she learns that the word means “slave girl,” she begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.

As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women’s and common folks’ experiences often go unrecorded. And so she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: the Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.

Set during the height of the women’s suffrage movement and with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. Inspired by actual events, author Pip Williams has delved into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell this highly original story. The Dictionary of Lost Words is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. The Dictionary of Lost Words is available now.

I agonized over what to write about The Dictionary of Lost Words. I love books about the love of words (The Grammarians and The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary come to mind) and I had high hopes for this one. Ultimately, I think I may have expected too much. I liked the book, but that indefinable thing that elevates a book from “good’ to “great” in my mind wasn’t there.

That being said, The Dictionary of Lost Words was very good. The story starts with Esme, the main character, as a girl. She grows up surrounded by words. Her dad works to gather words and their definitions for the Oxford English Dictionary, along with a team of other men. Esme gets the leftovers, so to speak; the words not deemed appropriate or good enough for the dictionary. I loved that idea. I loved the focus on the importance of words and the way they can affect change. The premise was fabulous.

I did feel that the book meandered a bit, and I found my attention wandering a little here and there. I had a particularly hard time during the second half of it. It just didn’t hold my focus. I think it might have been the switch in focus to include a little more about Esme’s personal life as an adult. It just wasn’t my thing.

What the book might have lacked in pacing, it more than made up for in detail. It is clear that the author put a ton of time and effort into making the book as close as possible to how things were at that time. The Dictionary of Lost Words might be a great read for readers who really enjoy historical fiction. However, readers who are looking specifically for a book about words and their power might be a teeny bit disappointed.

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