Title: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Book Beginning quote:
May 1887. SCRIPTORIUM. It sounds as if it might have been a grand building, where the lightest footstep would echo between marble floor and gilded dome. But it was just a shed, in the back of a house in Oxford. Instead of storing shovels and rakes, the shed stored words.
Friday56 quote, from page 22, last page of preview:
“[Esme] 'And then I was born and then she [her mother Lily] died.'
[Edith 'Ditte' Thompson, her godmother] 'Yes.'
'But when we talk about her, she comes to life.'
'Never forget that Esme. Words are our tools of resurrection.”
In 1901, the word ‘Bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.Review: Years ago I read Simon Winchester's book: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of Oxford English Dictionary and was blown away that there was no definitive dictionary for the English language until the mid-1800s. The process took years and years because each word had to come from some literary source and the spelling had to be agreed upon, etc. The project that Esme's father and other lexicographers embarked on in the late 1800s all the way up until 1928 was extension of that project. Dr. Murray and other scholars set out to make an exhaustive dictionary in volumes available for subscriptions, called fascicles. Ten volumes were published between 1884 and 1928. The Oxford English dictionary was reworked and republished in the late 1980s in a 20 volume set. Esme is a fictitious character but the story of her work on the dictionary is based on facts, though few women worked on the project, a few did. When the author, Pip Williams, started digging around she learned how few of the words in the dictionary were what one would think of women's words. Men had the power and they chose the words which mainly came from written sources dominated by men. With this in mind Williams set out to correct the record by having Esme collect words for her own dictionary of lost words.
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 realizes 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.
It is a tremendous story and one that I suspect I will mull over in my mind for years to come. Just like Esme who ruminates on the topic here --
“...I realized 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?... Which words would define me? Which would be used to judge or contain?”
Happily, the Oxford English Dictionary is once again being updated to correct some of the problems with half of the population being left out of the process of word definition in the first place. I suspect it will also be updated for more creeds, races, and religions as well. It is a living document.
I highly recommend the book. It is so thought-worthy. I know we will have an interesting discussion in book club during an upcoming meeting.
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