‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ by Pip Williams – She Grew Up With the First Oxford English Dictionary


‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ by Pip Williams (2021) – 359 pages


This book began as two simple questions. Do words mean different things to men and women? And if they do, is it possible that we have lost something in the process of defining them?” – Pip Williams

‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ is a very traditional substantial novel, and that is not at all a criticism. It is also a very perceptive and impassioned story.

The time is the early 1880s. Six year-old Esme is the daughter of one of the lexicographers, the men who are assembling the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Her mother died in childbirth, so the men allow her to stay around in the Scriptorium or as she calls it, the Scrippy, where her father and other men are at work putting together the dictionary. Even as a young child, Esme develops an early liking of words and their meanings.

A family maid Lizzie takes care of Esme as Esme grows up, and the bond between them becomes like that of a mother and daughter. The maid’s way of talking is much different from that of the learned Oxford men who are working on the dictionary.

The world ain’t like the Scrippy, Essy. Words don’t lie around waiting for some light-fingered girl to pick them up.” She turned and gave me a reassuring smile.

That’s just the point, Lizzie. I’m sure there are plenty of wonderful words flying around that have never been written on a slip of paper. I want to record them.”

Esme develops a life-long interest in the common words that were excluded by the Oxford authorities because they were used by the poor or by women. Some of the words Esme hears from Lizzie and Lizzie’s friends are not in the dictionary because they have never been written down. Some of the words are Old English words written even by Chaucer but are excluded by the Oxford men as being “obscene”.

One of the tamer examples of a word that is excluded is a “git”. The word is now in the Merriam-Webster dictionary defined as “British; a foolish or worthless person”. Another word that was lost is “knackered”.

The first Oxford English Dictionary took over 40 years to complete, Each of its twelve volumes was published as it was completed. When Esme grows up, the Oxford men allow her to work on the dictionary, not as a lexicographer but performing other necessary tasks. Along the way, Esme compiles her own list of words that have been excluded from the dictionary.

And also along the way, we get Esme’s own dramatic and poignant life story.

Some of the Oxford lexicographers are more dogmatic than Esme’s father or the head editor, Dr. James Murray, and in time Esme learns to tell these men off:

You are not the arbiter of knowledge, sir. You are its librarian.” I pushed Women’s Words across his desk. “It is not for you to judge the importance of these words, simply to allow others to do so.”

I found ‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ to be a very satisfying stimulating read that raised some issues about language and words that need to be raised.

The Dictionary, like the English language, is a work in progress.” – Pip Williams


Grade:     A



3 responses to this post.

  1. Yes, I loved this too. A book about the power of words!

    Liked by 1 person


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