NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • REESE’S BOOK CLUB PICK • “Delightful . . . [a] captivating and slyly subversive fictional paean to the real women whose work on the Oxford English Dictionary went largely unheralded.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A marvelous fiction about the power of language to elevate or repress.”—Geraldine Brooks, New York Times bestselling author of People of the Book
Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, an Oxford garden shed in which her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip and, learning that the word means “slave girl,” begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.
As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women’s and common folks’ experiences often go unrecorded. And so she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: the Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.
Set during the height of the women’s suffrage movement and with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. Inspired by actual events, author Pip Williams has delved into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell this highly original story. The Dictionary of Lost Words is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.
WINNER OF THE AUSTRALIAN BOOK INDUSTRY AWARD
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.
Overall a good read, moving and important ideas. A bit slow in parts that had me skimming a few paragraphs, but overall got to its point and was quite moving in the final quarter. Worth your time.
What A Glorious Tale
Lush, rich with characters and the words they speak. Young Esme draws the reader along with the story of both a woman in a somewhat cloistered environment and her glorious grasp of words and their nuances.
A wonderful, absorbing story! As a self-described “word nerd” I found the word descriptions very interesting. The characters, however, made the story for me. They are so well developed, real, and likable (or not, in one case) that this was hard to put down! Strongly recommend!