Not a light-hearted book, this one. It’s a long, slow burn, perhaps a bit over-written, a 300 page story stuffed into a 400 page one. I did get into it, but at the start the writing felt contrived — quirkiness which missed authenticity by a beat.
At heart it’s the story of women coming of age through the 1900s and the long slow finding of their seat at the table. This much I loved. The men are kindly old academics but blind to their blindness and the women have an unspoken hunch that equality would be nice. They work as hard as the men with the brains of the men but get no credit for any of it and pretty much everyone accepts that. Rebellion is very much on the fringe which is spot on.
The story follows the the making of the first Oxford English Dictionary, a long, laborious process spanning decades. The workers celebrate getting as far through the alphabet as “ant”. The story is told by child who, through the course of the book, grows to be an independent woman. Her name is Esme, and her father is a lexographer who works at the Scriptorium. Motherless, Esme spends loose hours under the table while the men sort incoming word definitions above.
Esme collects words that drop from the table and puts them in a trunk. “Bondmaid” is the first. Pretty appropriate for many women of the era, in service or not. She collects other words found or stolen or duplicated (I never worked out what or why) and there’s a hint of kleptomania that fizzles out. As Esme grows she realises that some words and definitions don’t make the dictionary. They’re rude, or not written down (by a white male), or not well defined. After a while she focuses on women’s words and definitions, and then her story starts to make sense. She begins collecting commonly spoken words missing from the dictionary, and defining them.
Lie child: A child born out of wedlock. A bastard. Defined, but excluded from the dictionary. Esme has one (a lie child) and wants this redefined.
Morbs: A temporary sadness. Not included because not written down, despite the fact that every woman in the market knows the term.
Cunt. 1. Slang for vagina. 2. An insult based on the premise that a woman’s vagina is vulgar. Not in the dictionary. Of course.
Sisterhood is in the dictionary with two definitions. The first for nuns, the second for a group of women with a common aim “usually in a bad sense”. One reference for the word is for women of the suffragette type, “a highly educated, screeching, childless, and husbandless sisterhood.” Esme, now grown and on the edge of the sisterhood, crosses out “in a bad sense” and adds a better definition.
In defining the progress of the women’s movement through words the book is cool, as is the process of the birth of the dictionary, however, the titular Dictionary of Lost Words is an anticlimax and I’m not sure if Pip Williams intended that as a face-slap or not. Sure Esme would have liked to publish it herself! I felt aggreived for her.
Parts of The Dictionary of Lost Words I liked very much, and if you’re after a long, slow read with some interesting words I’d recommend this. Or you could just read the dictionary.