The Dictionary of Lost Words is a work of historical fiction centred around a girl who finds refuge from life’s tragedies and society’s inequalities in collecting words and their meanings, especially those rejected by a traditional dictionary—the first one of its kind. By Nanya Srivastava
What is the function of words, of a dictionary? This question lies at the heart of The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams, the publication of which coincided with the imposing of unprecedented lockdowns around the world in March 2020.
The story takes place in Oxford in the early 1900s, when the first Oxford English Dictionary is being compiled by editors, who sit in a place they have dubbed Scriptorium. The book is a work of historical fiction, which Pip Williams spun out of a little fact: in the first ever edition of the Oxford Dictionary, the word ‘bondmaid’ was found to be missing. In the story, it’s little Esme, the daughter of one of the editors in the Scriptorium, who finds the slip of the word ‘bondmaid’ adrift and saves it in a trunk. As Esme grows up, she realises that many words and their meanings are rejected by the editors because they do not have enough written precedence, pertain to women, or are used colloquially by the lower classes. Of course, most of the written precedence is set by men in that era.
“…I realised that the words most often used to define us were words that described our function in relation to others. Even the most benign words — maiden, wife, mother – told the world whether we were virgins or not. What was the male equivalent of maiden?”
As Esme spends most of her time in the company of a cook and a maid, she observes from close quarters how far removed intellectual debates are from the experiences of the underprivileged. She grows up to become an editor of the dictionary, which is still being compiled, but is paid less even as she takes on more work. Historically, there were women who helped as volunteers and editors in the making of the dictionary but their contributions weren’t publicly acknowledged. In fact, they were not even allowed to participate in the celebration of the dictionary’s completion—they could only observe the men from a gallery. This fact is memorably depicted in the novel.
Esme’s life is marked by two big political events: World War I and the suffragette movement. From the sidelines, she has a good view of the impact of these events on those left out of the mainstream narrative, and she takes it upon herself to record their stories and the words that they use. Esme knows that only those stories that are written survive, everything else is lost to time. And so, she names her project: The Dictionary of Lost Words. Her story is a reminder that not all heroes need to pick up arms or protest signs—for some, a pen is enough.
Words play an important part in Esme’s own life as well. In her childhood, they fill the void left by her mother’s death, and as she goes through life, they help her make sense of tragedy, deal with grief, and discover a purpose. Books like this one did the same for people stuck inside their homes as a strange pandemic ravaged their lives.
“Of some experiences, the Dictionary would only ever provide an approximation. Sorrow, I already knew, was one of them.”
This one was an engaging and impactful read. I’d rate it a solid four out of five stars!