Weekly Reads: The Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words cover.
Emily Dickinson // The Watchdog

“Some words are more than letters on a page, don’t you think? They have shape and texture. They are like bullets, full of energy, and when you give one breath you can feel its sharp edge against your lip.”

― Pip Williams, “The Dictionary of Lost Words”

CONTENT WARNING: This book talks about death, has crude language and sexual scenes.

This book makes you cherish the English language and hate it at the same time. Author Pip Williams brings us to our starting year in 1886. Here we meet main character Esme Nicoll and the men working to complete the Oxford Dictionary. Esme grew up in the scriptorium where the words were sorted and defined as she hid under the sorting table. The men, the places and events mentioned are factual and are as true as time. Esme and her Da are fictional, same as Esme’s accomplishments in the novel, but the world around her is that of truth.

“The Dictionary of Lost Words” is about the meaning of words and how they can define others. The main point of the novel is to raise awareness around how one-sided the making of the dictionary was. Without the help of women, many words commonly used by women weren’t included in the dictionary. Esme’s place is to collect these forgotten words and combine them into her dictionary of lost words. 

The story brings us through the making of the dictionary within the scriptorium, the Ashmolean, and the Press. Along with the making of the dictionary, Esme experienced women’s movements happening across Oxford and beyond, as well as the first world war. 

Williams was able to add context to the story and the place of women during these historical events. She used Esme as an example as she faced common hardships while holding onto the words she wished existed beyond women’s knowledge. 

“The Dictionary of Lost Words” is one of the finest novels I have ever read and one of the most empowering. The hardships bestowed upon Esme were incredibly inconceivable, but the strength within her and the outcome was even greater. The story that follows the word “bondmaid” is immaculate and should be read in order to understand the importance of words and their definitions.