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.
Before the lost word, there was another. It arrived at the Scriptorium in a second-hand envelope, the old address crossed out and Dr Murray, Sunnyside, Oxford, written in its place.
enjoyable/easy to read:
Beautifully written, it nevertheless took me some time to become invested in The Dictionary of Lost Words. I’m not sure if it was the slow pace or the uncertain direction of the story, but I’m not sure I was really interested until at least 150 pages in.
There’s so much to love about The Dictionary of Lost Words. The amount of time and care that went into compiling the dictionary is inspiring, and the people who dedicated their lives to this endeavour were fascinating to read about. I could’ve spent the entire book in the Scriptorium while these lexicographers and their assistants worked diligently to collect, spell, and define these words.
Bondmaid. It came back to me then, and 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? I could not think of it. What was the male equivalent of Mrs, of whore, of common scold?
Unfortunately, Esme always felt like a bystander in her own life. Even when terrible things were happening, I never felt she was fully committed to any of her emotions or actions. Thankfully, for much of her story, we have Lizzie and Gareth, who do a great deal of heavy lifting. It was easy to care about them, and I only wish they had featured more prominently. I also looked forward to Ditte’s appearances (usually in letter form), and Esme’s stay with Ditte and her sister was very enjoyable.
Williams tells a beautiful story with many actual historical figures and events. While I may not have fully committed to our protagonist, I certainly appreciated The Dictionary of Lost Words.