Book Review

THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS by Pip Williams

I received a gifted copy of THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS by Pip Williams from Random House!

Rating: 4 / 5

THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS follows Esme, a young woman who grew up sitting at the feet of a father who worked with a team of lexicographers collecting words and quotes for the first Oxford English Dictionary. She sits beneath the sorting table in the garden shed known as the Scriptorium, watching the all men crew decide what is worthy of placement in the dictionary. In contrast, the backdrop is the early women’s suffrage movement and the looming threat of war.

As she grows, Esme begins to see that words discarded as unworthy tend to be those tied to women and to those deemed a lower class of people. She collects these words and begins to collect words on her own, going to women to find words that relate to their lives and their particular experiences.

I found this book to be very interesting, especially given that it is based in a true story. The idea that the entire book meant to represent the whole of the English language was compiled only by men isn’t shocking, but it was interesting to see the ways in which this played out. Apart from the male staff, their process was to find uses of the word in conventional texts. Given women’s limited access to publishing, this also aided in the lack of female centered words.

Esme’s process included going to real women in her life, the woman who essentially raised her in the absence of her mother, household staff and members of the community. She recorded words they commonly used and their own definitions, taking quotations from actual human speech instead of printed text.

This book is a good combination of an interesting history with Esme’s own coming of age as we see her grow up over the years and the way her perspective changes. This is one I would recommend to fans of language history and historical fiction in general!

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