The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Oh what a fine book to start of a n ew month!   I picked this up thanks to a recommendation from a friend whose tastes I respect and besides, it had been on my Wish List at Audible for a couple months already (along with about 200 other books).  Whatever –  as it turns out I got the library book because it was available.  

The Dictionary of Lost Words 
by Pip Williams
Read by Pippa Bennett-Warner 11h 11m
Rating:  9.5 / great historical fiction

A lot of historical fiction books use the WWI era as a setting. That era included many things including the war itself, but also women’s suffrage. This book starts out right before the turn of the century and winds up in an epi-logue. The events described are well grounded in verifiable history, but the life of the prota-gonist along with that of her family and friends is fictional. There are many historical “events” described, and for the main characters to deal with, or be involved with, as well as just setting a tone for the era.     

Esme, a young motherless woman has been interested in words from a very young age because her father is a lexicographer working to get the first Oxford English Dictionary published. The year is 1890 or so.  Again, the book was inspired by real events:

English women of the Victorian era were unable to vote or do much of anything without a man taking charge of them. In fact that wasn’t granted until 1928 (in the US it was 1920 with some limitations. In France it was 1944! With the Iroquois it was a pre-Columbian thing – LOL!

There really isn’t much of a linear plot here – it’s more like a series of events some of which lead to other things – a bit episodic in a way. But Esme is a very bright young girl growing up in the same time and place the Oxford Dictionary is being produced and Esme loves words. It’s almost like a coming of age story but her circumstances are very different from today’s young women or even those of most young women in the very early 1900s.

Anyway, Williams breaks the grim plot with humor because while still a young woman Esme becomes a lexicographer; learning new words along with definitions and origins is her job. She loves it and wants to advance in her job at the dictionary where new words or usages are sent in by the public of almost all economic classes and social levels. The dictionary took 4 decades to produce.

 There are a number of important people mentioned including James Murray, the first editor of the dictionary and Emmeline Pankhurst and others involved are spoken about when Esme gets interested in the suffragettes.  It seems women and other groups have their own words not found in mainstream dictionaries. That becomes Esme’s self-proclaimed job. The whole thing is fascinating . There’s a lot there and I could read it again.

The Oxford Dictionary includes all known and verifiable usages as well as the first known use.

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2 Responses to The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I’ve just read the follow-up to this, I don’t know if it’s been released in the US yet. See


  2. Oh happy day! I just checked your review and it sounds like I’ll be happy when it’s available here – August.


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