The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction | Literary Fiction
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

By Jo Nestor

The Dictionary of Lost Words is the story of ‘Esme Nicoll’, who starts her pre-school life going to work with her widowed father, ‘Da’. He works at an Oxford Scriptorium along with other academics. All men. The Scriptorium is described as ‘a tin shed’ in the back garden of the leading academic’s house, or team leader, if you will. These men’s task is to compile the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. They receive handwritten words by post, or by hand, on uniform-sized so-called ‘slips’ of paper, along with at least one quotation/definition. These slips are gathered, with their various definitions for a single word, collated and then placed in bundles within pigeonholes along the walls of the Scriptorium. In her ‘Author’s Note’, Pip Williams says,

‘… delegates of the Oxford University Press – those who held the purse strings – were men. Where, I wondered, are the women in this story, and does it matter that they are absent?’

‘Esme’ spends her early days sitting below the table, and starts collecting slips that fall or are discarded by the academics working above. In time, she learns to read, and the suppertime game between her and ‘Da’ is to play around with words, synonyms and definitions. (I love words and collect dictionaries, so what’s not to like, like?) ‘Esme’ keeps her word collection in a trunk under a friend’s bed: a ‘bondmaid’ called ‘Lizzie Lester’.

‘I thought about the words in the trunk. Some I hadn’t heard or read until I saw them on a slip. Most were commonplace, but something about the slip or handwriting had endeared them to me. There were clumsy words with poorly transcribed quotations that would never end up in the Dictionary, and there were words that existed for one sentence and do other: fledglings … words that never made it. … ‘Bondmaid’ was no fledgling word, and its meaning disturbed me. Lizzie was right; it referred to her as it referred to a Roman slave girl.’

The story includes: women’s suffrage in the late 1800s and early 1900s; life through World War One; and the Victorian class system that encapsulated the word ‘bondmaid’ to describe and mean a woman in domestic service. The poppies depicted on the pretty cover of my paperback edition allude to the ‘Great War’. The ‘lost words’ of the book’s title not only refer to words that fall by accident beneath the table, but also to words discarded on purpose, associated specifically with women, often with derogatory meanings, always ascribed from a male perspective. Again, in her ‘Author’s Note’, Pip Williams says,

‘I decided that the absence of women did matter. A lack of representation might mean that the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was biased in favour of the experiences and sensibilities of men, Older, white, Victorian-era men at that.’

I’m not giving away a ‘spoiler’ by saying that ‘Esme’ has a deformed hand. This adds a rich layer to the storytelling because it’s noticed and sometimes remarked upon by other characters throughout the story. I’ll indulge you with this lovely extract:

‘’Esme’, he said. ‘It’s so lovely to see you again.’ I wasn’t sure what I should say. I offered a nod, but barely a smile. When he held out his large hand, I gave mine. He saw my funny fingers and didn’t flinch, but I expected his grip to be limp from the fear of crushing what looked so fragile. Instead, his grip was firm enough to keep my hand from slipping free. When he let go, it was just at the right moment. You can tell a lot from the way a man takes your hand, Da once told me.’

Despite the call for the compilation of this dictionary coming from London, all the work was done in Oxford. Himself loves to say, I went to Trinity, as much as I love to say, I went to Oxford. In his case, he was a kitchen porter. In mine, a boarding school housekeeper, and then shop assistant at a bakery, both in Headington. So, an added bonus to my reading enjoyment came from knowing the layout of Oxford, its streets, buildings, the river. Knowing how to pronounce Magdalen (It’s ‘Maudlin’. You’re welcome). Yes, familiarity with Oxford definitely enhanced what was already a great read.

At the back of the book, there are two useful resources. ‘Timeline of the Oxford English Dictionary’, from 1857 to 1989, when the second edition was published. And ‘Timeline of Major Historical Events Featured in the Novel’. Both are excellent additions to the reading experience, in my opinion.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip WilliamsA fascinating story beautifully told, what an absolute delight it was to read. I highly recommend The Dictionary of Lost Words for its readability. That’s a real word. Look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary.

‘An enchanting story about love, loss and the power of language.’ Elizabeth Macneal, author of The Doll Factory.

‘Though-provoking, touching and subtly romantic; I finished it in tears.’ Katie Fforde.

(c) Jo Nestor

Jo Nestor, retired Adult Educator, lives in Leitrim and writes fulltime. Twice long-listed for the FISH memoir competition, she won the Leitrim Guardian Literary Award, 2020. Her writing features in the 2021 edition of the broadsheet, Autumn Leaves, the Leitrim Guardian, and at  She chooses to live in hope.

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