In 1901, the word bondmaid was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.
Motherless and irrepressibly curious, Esme spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of lexicographers are gathering words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary.
Esme's place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day, she sees a slip containing the word bondmaid flutter to the floor unclaimed. Esme seizes the word and hides it in an old wooden trunk that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.
Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women's experiences often go unrecorded. She begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Inspired by a missing entry from the early Oxford English Dictionary, Pip Williams’ debut novel imagines a young girl responsible for the omission of the word “bondmaid”, or “a female bound to serve without wages”. Going behind the scenes of the dictionary’s painstaking assembly, Williams examines the way history is so often written by men. This triumphant and heartwarming historical fiction begins in the 19th century’s final decades, before encompassing the suffragette movement and First World War. Equally informed by research and reverence, The Dictionary of Lost Words questions who dictates our common vocabulary, and the alternately confining and liberating potential of individual words.
In Williams's exuberant, meticulously researched debut, the daughter of a lexicographer devotes her life to an alternative dictionary. As a young child in 1880s Oxford, Esme Nicoll is enchanted by the "Scriptorium," a shed behind their house where her father, Harry, works with a team to sort and select words for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. When she finds the word "bondmaid" on a discarded slip and realizes the term refers to a female slave, Esme begins her own effort, the "Dictionary of Lost Words," stowing slips of words deemed unfit for the OED in a chest belonging to their servant, Lizzie. In her teens, Esme becomes further obsessed with which words make the cut decisions primarily made by men and listens to women in the marketplace, returning with suggestions for Harry. The ensuing bildungsroman carries the reader at a rapid pace through Esme's 20s, when she rubs shoulders with suffragettes, finds romance, and bonds with Lizzie while struggling to get her book of lost words printed. Though this sweeping effort takes some time to build momentum, the payoff is deeply satisfying. Williams's feminist take on language will move readers.
This was a lovely read thoroughly enjoyed it