Thursday 13 May 2021

Book Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (Historical Fiction)

Title: The Dictionary of Lost Words
Author: Pip Williams
Publisher: Affirm Press
Publication Date: 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Won in a Giveaway

In 1901, the word ‘Bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case 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. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

Set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It’s a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape the world and our experience of it.


The Dictionary of Lost Words was an interesting read. I liked the way it examined the idea of words meaning different things to different people, and the sense of censorship of language. Esme was an interesting character whose story I engaged with completely when she was a child/young woman. However, I did find myself losing interest a little in the final quarter of the book, when the language-seeking aspects of the story gave way somewhat to her romance. As such this was a four-star read for me, but it is a book I am sure will appeal to fans of historical fiction with a literary bent.

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