Published by: Chatto Windus
Date released: 08/04/2021
Date read: 13/05/2021
In 1901, the word ‘bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.
Motherless and irrepressibly curious, Esme spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of lexicographers are gathering words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary.
Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day, she sees a slip containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutter to the floor unclaimed.
Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences often go unrecorded. She begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.
I had been wanting to read The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams for a while, so when the opportunity presented itself, I bought it and got stuck straight in.
At first, I was a little disappointed, feeling it was slightly one dimensional, a bit repetitive and slow, but not necessarily bad. At about 150 pages in, things started to change and suddenly a whole plethora of other things were happening.
The story spans a 40-year period, in which time more changed than can be described: the first Oxford English Dictionary was published, suffragettes became powerful, women got the vote, World War 1 occurred. It’s a very important time period in both this fictional world and the real world we find ourselves living.
The main crux of the story I suppose is Esme finding out there is a difference between the words deemed of value and those without. Unfortunately, most of the lexicographers working on the dictionary are high-class men, which means the word deemed without value were predominately attributed to the poor or to women. Those seen as lesser in society during that time.
For someone whose bread and butter involves words, I hadn’t ever given much conscious thought to the importance of one word over another. But after reading this, it’s given me a real fascination into why we consider some words dictionary worthy, and others not, just because of who said them.
I’d love to see a real Dictionary of Lost Words from today’s period and compare it to the one in this book. Words that would have made the toughest soldier blush in the book seems to be part of everyday lexicon nowadays. But I think the fictional dictionary, plus this novel, has the opportunity to give us all hope, and a real thirst for knowledge.