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The Dictionary of Lost Words
Cover of The Dictionary of Lost Words
The Dictionary of Lost Words
A Novel
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • REESE’S BOOK CLUB PICK • “Delightful . . . [a] captivating and slyly subversive fictional paean to the real women whose work on the Oxford English...
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • REESE’S BOOK CLUB PICK • “Delightful . . . [a] captivating and slyly subversive fictional paean to the real women whose work on the Oxford English...
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  • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • REESE’S BOOK CLUB PICK • “Delightful . . . [a] captivating and slyly subversive fictional paean to the real women whose work on the Oxford English Dictionary went largely unheralded.”—The New York Times Book Review
    “A marvelous fiction about the power of language to elevate or repress.”—Geraldine Brooks, New York Times bestselling author of People of the Book

    Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, an Oxford garden shed in which her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip and, learning that the word means “slave girl,” begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.
    As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women’s and common folks’ experiences often go unrecorded. And so she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: the Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.
    Set during the height of the women’s suffrage movement and with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. Inspired by actual events, author Pip Williams has delved into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell this highly original story. The Dictionary of Lost Words is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.
    WINNER OF THE AUSTRALIAN BOOK INDUSTRY AWARD

Excerpts-

  • From the book

    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 garden of a house in Oxford.

    Instead of storing shovels and rakes, the shed stored words. Every word in the English language was written on a slip of paper the size of a postcard. Volunteers posted them from all over the world, and they were kept in bundles in the hundreds of pigeon-holes that lined the shed walls. Dr. Murray was the one who named it the Scriptorium—he must have thought it an indignity for the English language to be stored in a garden shed—but everyone who worked there called it the Scrippy. Everyone but me. I liked the feel of Scriptorium as it moved around my mouth and landed softly between my lips. It took me a long time to learn to say it, and when I finally did nothing else would do.

    Da once helped me search the pigeon-holes for scriptorium. We found five slips with examples of how the word had been used, each quotation dating back little more than a hundred years. All of them were more or less the same, and none of them referred to a shed in the back garden of a house in Oxford. A scriptorium, the slips told me, was a writing room in a monastery.

    But I understood why Dr. Murray had chosen it. He and his assistants were a little like monks, and when I was five it was easy to imagine the Dictionary as their holy book. When Dr. Murray told me it would take a lifetime to compile all the words, I wondered whose. His hair was already as grey as ash, and they were only halfway through B.

    Da and Dr. Murray had been teachers together in Scotland long before there was a scriptorium. And because they were friends, and because I had no mother to care for me, and because Da was one of Dr. Murray’s most trusted lexicographers, everyone turned a blind eye when I was in the Scriptorium.

    The Scriptorium felt magical, like everything that ever was and ever could be had been stored within its walls. Books were piled on every surface. Old dictionaries, histories and tales from long ago filled the shelves that separated one desk from another, or created a nook for a chair. Pigeon-holes rose from the floor to the ceiling. They were crammed full of slips, and Da once said that if I read every one, I’d understand the meaning of everything.

    In the middle of it all was the sorting table. Da sat at one end, and three assistants could fit along either side. At the other end was Dr. Murray’s high desk, facing all the words and all the men who helped him define them.

    We always arrived before the other lexicographers, and for that little while I would have Da and the words all to myself. I’d sit on Da’s lap at the sorting table and help him sort the slips. Whenever we came across a word I didn’t know, he would read the quotation it came with and help me work out what it meant. If I asked the right questions, he would try to find the book the quotation came from and read me more. It was like a treasure hunt, and sometimes I found gold.

    “This boy had been a scatter-brained scapegrace from his birth.” Da read the quotation from a slip he had just pulled out of an envelope.

    “Am I a scatter-brained scapegrace?” I asked.

    “Sometimes,” Da said, tickling me.

    Then I asked who the boy was, and Da showed me where it was written at the top of the slip.

    “Ala-ed-Din and the Wonderful Lamp,” he read.

    When the other assistants arrived I slipped under the sorting table.

    “Be quiet as a mouse and stay out of the...

About the Author-

  • Pip Williams was born in London, grew up in Sydney, and now lives in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia with her family and an assortment of animals. She has spent most of her working life as a social researcher, studying what keeps us well and what helps us thrive, and she is the author of One Italian Summer, a memoir of her family’s travels in search of the good life, which was published in Australia to wide acclaim. Based on her original research in the Oxford English Dictionary archives, The Dictionary of Lost Words is her first novel.

Reviews-

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from March 12, 2021

    DEBUT Esme Nicoll's love of words began underneath her father's desk inside the Scriptorium, a garden shed where a team of lexicographers and assistants fashioned the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. One day, a slip falls from a Scriptorium desk and lands in Esme's lap. Believing it to be discarded, Esme pockets the slip and stores it in a wooden chest. As she grows, Esme continues to collect words and slowly begins to understand that the words used by women and poor people are often deemed unworthy to be immortalized in print. As she diligently devotes her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, Esme decides to give voice to the unwritten words by writing her own lexicon in secret--the Dictionary of Lost Words. Set in England in the harrowing era of women's suffrage and the Great War, this fiction debut, by social researcher and memoirist Williams (One Italian Summer), uncovers perspectives that might have been lost if not for Esme's love and dedication. VERDICT Enchanting, sorrowful, and wonderfully written, the book is a one-of-a-kind celebration of language and its importance in our lives. A must-have for every library collection.--Carmen Clark, Elkhart Public Library, IN

    Copyright 2021 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    March 15, 2021
    The Herculean efforts required to assemble the Oxford English Dictionary are retold, this time from a fictionalized, distaff point of view, in Williams' debut novel. Esme Nicoll, the motherless young daughter of a lexicographer working in the Scriptorium--in reality, a garden shed in Oxford where a team led by James Murray, one of the OED's editors, toiled--accompanies her father to work frequently. The rigor and passion with which the project is managed is apparent to the sensitive and curious Esme, as is the fact that the editorial team of men labors under the influence of Victorian-era mores. Esme begins a clandestine operation to rescue words which have been overlooked or intentionally omitted from the epic dictionary. Her childhood undertaking becomes a lifelong endeavor, and her efforts to validate the words which flew under the (not yet invented) radar of the OED gatekeepers gain traction at the same time the women's suffrage movement fructifies in England. The looming specter of World War I lends tension to Esme's personal saga while a disparate cast of secondary characters adds pathos and depth. Underlying this panoramic account are lexicographical and philosophical interrogatives: Who owns language, does language reflect or affect, who chooses what is appropriate, why is one meaning worthier than another, what happens when a word mutates in meaning? (For example, the talismanic word first salvaged by Esme, bondmaid, pops up with capricious irregularity and amorphous meaning throughout the lengthy narrative.) Williams provides readers with detailed background and biographical information pointing to extensive research about the OED and its editors, many of whom appear as characters in Esme's life. The result is a satisfying amalgam of truth and historical fiction. Who tells your story? Williams illuminates why women needed to be in the room where, and when, it's written.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    April 1, 2021
    Do words mean different things to men and women? That is the question at the heart of Williams' thoughtful and gentle first novel based on original research in the Oxford English Dictionary archives and set during the women's suffrage movement in England. Motherless Esme spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, the garden shed in the back of the house where her father works for the Scots-born lexicographer James Murray and his monk-like team, who are collecting words for the first edition of the OED. "Instead of storing shovels and rakes, the shed stored words." Some slips of paper carrying words are misplaced or discarded, and it is these "lost" words that Esme is determined to rescue from certain oblivion. The words that resonate with her range from the profane to the political. As Esme confronts sexism in her daily life, she finds solace in the meaning and significance of "women's words," which address the female experience. A lexicographer's dream of a novel, this is a lovely book to get lost in, an imaginative love letter to dictionaries.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Booklist, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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