The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Every year I look forward to the announcement of the ‘word of the year’ – some years I agree with the choice, other years they’re less meaningful to me (‘youthquake’ didn’t shake my world in 2017 but I’m pleased ‘climate emergency’ was recognised last year).

Pip Williams’s novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, explores the development of the Oxford English Dictionary through the lens of gender, historical events, and social structure. Williams uses real and imaginary characters to tell the story, which spans the women’s suffrage movement and the beginning of the Great War.

The story begins with Esme, a curious and good-natured child who spends her days at the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of lexicographers are gathering words for the first edition of the Dictionary. From a hiding place beneath the table, Esme collects words that are misplaced or discarded by the male lexicographers. These words fill gaps in Esme’s life, and help make sense of her world (her mother is dead and she is cared for by her father and a servant, Lizzie. Family friend, Ditte, oversees her education).

The story follows Esme’s life and the development of her own dictionary – The Dictionary of Lost Words. I won’t say anything more about the plot for fear of spoiling the twists and turns in Esme’s life.

As is often the case with historical fiction, I find it difficult to become fully invested in the characters when decades are compressed into 400 pages – events invaribly seem overly dramatic and contrived. Although Williams gives the events in Esme’s life context, the story ultimately felt very much plot-driven. That said, the brief moments where Esme reflected on the loss of her mother, or her personal understanding of particular words, were beautifully executed (I want more of that in my historical fiction, and fewer jumps in the narrative).

“And then I was born and then she died.”
“Yes.”
“But when we talk about her, she comes to life.”
“Never forget that Esme. Words are our tools of resurrection.”
A new word. I looked up. “It’s when you bring something back,” Ditte said.

This story prompted me to think about the Urban Dictionary – it’s a fascinating collection, and does what Esme set out to do with her own dictionary. Esme says –

I think sometimes the proper words mustn’t be quite right, and so people make new words up, or use old words differently.

Esme’s ‘new’ words sit alongside those that she knows well, but that have taken on new meaning as her life changes –

Few words have as many variants as love. I felt it resonate deep in my chest and knew it to mean something different to any other version I’d heard or uttered.

Overall, I enjoyed this gentle story and I appreciated its charms (although it didn’t hit the high for me, as it did for Lisa at ANZ LitLovers). I particularly liked the author’s thoughtful end-notes and acknowledgements, which gave a brief overview of the history of the Oxford English Dictionary (Lisa’s review has a terrific summary), and confirmed the meticulous research that Williams undertook in writing the novel.

3/5 Solid historical fiction.

“The only cake I eat is Madeira. It’s a rule and it helps keep me trim.”
Aunty Ditte was as wide as Mrs Ballard and a little bit shorter. “What is trim? I asked.
“An impossible ideal and something you are not likely to have to worry about,” she said. Then she added, “It’s when you make something a little bit smaller.”

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 24): Belfast 9°-17° and Melbourne 6°-13°.

9 responses

  1. Surely this year’s phrase will be “social distancing”!

    When I saw your post title I mistook it for a novel I’m reading atm, The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams, which also involves the history of a dictionary. (Just out here, but probably hasn’t made it to Oz.)

  2. I’m going to give this a whirl at some point.
    Just had a look at that urban dictionary and was very unhappy to see that they are perpetuating the latest trend to label people with my name as rude, privileged, middle class. I can’t help being called Karen – I didn’t choose it and neither did any of the other million or so people with the name.

    • Ooh, I didn’t know the Urban Dictionary did names too. I love it … here is the beginning of me: “A beautiful intelligent lady, who is determined to change the world for the greater good. Her incredible smile lights up the room. Her amazing personality and funny charm attracts men and women to want to be friends with her.” Haha. Sorry, Karen!

      BTW Kate, this was the last book I gave Mum that she completed. I gave her three later, one of which she started, but this she finished. She was a lexicographer in her working life, and she LOVED LOVED LOVED this book, liked Lisa. I now have it and plan to read it when I get on top of things.

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