What can I say about The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams? That it is a must-read novel? That the characters will take hold of your heart? That the story is one that must be told? The story is all those things and more. When she read that bondmaid was missing from the 1901 Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Pip Williams began thinking about why the word had been omitted. A story began forming in her mind. Another question that plagued Williams after she read Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman was about men were employed in defining the words. That made her question who gave some thought to the way women use words. As a result of her own questioning, Pip researched to find answers, but found none.
Thus, The Dictionary of Lost Words came into being. To create the story, Pip Williams includes real people who did work on the OED, but she also needed fictional characters to flesh out the story. Esme is a little girl whose widowed father works on defining words for the OED. Because he is a widow, he brings Esme to work with him. The men defining the words for the OED work in a garden shed in James Murray’s yard. Murray was the primary editor of the first edition of the OED.
Esme sits on her father’s lap part of the time; then she slips off his lap and stows herself away under the table. One day, the slip of paper containing bondmaid and its definition slips off the table and into Esme’s sight. She squirrels the paper away in her pocket. At lunchtime, she hides the paper in a trunk under Lizzie’s bed in the Murray home. Lizzie is a young maid in the house, and she also helps Esme’s father look after Esme.
Lizzie is a special character, a maid. Esme learns about the world of servants and the women who sell items in the market through Lizzie. The two have a special bond that Esme breaks only once when Esme is still quite young. Through that association with Lizzie, Esme becomes more and more interested in the words the MEN are omitting from the dictionary: words that women use; often words those who are illiterate use, but words that are extremely expressive. Esme finds special meaning in those words and wants to capture them so they are no longer lost.
Lizzie objects to Esme’s wish to capture words by saying, “They’re just words we use ‘cos we don’t know anything better.” Esme responds, “I think sometimes the proper words mustn’t be quite right, and so people make new words up, or use old words differently.”
My favorite definition from Lizzie is the first one that Esme captures:
“I get up before dawn to make sure everyone in the big house will be warm and fed when they wake, and I don’t go to sleep till they is snoring. I feel knackered half the time, like a worn-out horse. No good for nothing. Lizzie Lester, 1902
To say I enjoyed The Dictionary of Lost Words would be an understatement. I highly recommend it as a study in what words mean and how important it is to capture all words, not just those lofty ones used in academia.