The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams

One small part of my job as a librarian is to help explain what words mean, especially for the many students at our university who don’t speak English fluently. Once, I helped a student improve his vocabulary by trying to explain words from Dr. Seuss. (It’s really hard to define onomatopoeia without resorting to just making sounds.) Doing this made me realize that there are a lot words I think I know—I understand them in context—but I can’t define them. So I marvel at lexicographers who can capture the meaning of words in just a few sentences. The main character of Pip Williams charming, thoughtful novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, is a word nerd like me, but she has a gift for succinct definitions. This talent was nurtured by her father, one of the editors for the monumental Oxford English Dictionary, a dictionary that attempts to capture the meaning of every word in English from the first recognizable utterances to the present.

Esme’s mother died when she was very young. From necessity, her father took her to work with him in Sir James Murray‘s Scriptorium with the other lexicography worker bees as they endeavor to find, define, and explain every single English word*. While her father works, Esme plays under the table, growing on a steady diet of words. She becomes so fascinated, in fact, that she gets in trouble for stealing slips with definitions and quotations because she can’t help but “collect” them. She eventually grows out of this, comforted by the fact that her father and Sir James eventually give her little jobs she can do to help the dictionary.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is the story of Esme’s unusual life. As a young girl in Victorian England, she would normally be expected to marry and be a housewife. Her love of words and the indulgence of the adults around her, however, give her an alternative. This alternative gives her the freedom to keep collecting words. Instead of pilfering slips, Esme hunts out words that won’t be included in the Oxford English Dictionary (at least the first, somewhat prudish edition). One of the rules that govern whether or not a word will be included is that it must have examples in print. Without the internet and social media to capture words that wouldn’t make it into formally published words, a lot of words were going to be left out. So, in her free time, Esme interviews sex workers, the poor—almost exclusively women—to make her own small dictionary. She keeps up her side project through the years, through the rising suffragist movement and World War I, before finding a new use for words to help soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.

I very much enjoyed The Dictionary of Lost Words. There was so much there for me to love: an empathetic word nerd of a protagonist, a dash of conflict, a love story, and the Oxford English Dictionary. This novel is a bit of a slow burn, but I didn’t mind since Esme has such an interesting life. I also liked that the plot never quite went where I expected it to. There were enough surprises to keep this book from getting too academic, if readers are worried about too much linguistic talk. This was a delightful read.

A quotation for the word “flood” created for the Oxford English Dictionary (Image via Wikicommons)

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.


*One of my linguistics professors once told me that English has more words than any other language in the world. I have no reason to doubt this, since not only do English speakers like to steal words from other languages at every opportunity, they also like to coin new words and modify existing words like there’s no tomorrow. No wonder the Oxford English Dictionary is only published online now. I can’t imagine how many volumes it would take to print out.

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