Books Reviews

The Dictionary of Lost Words

The cover of the book The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams


In 1901, the word ‘Bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.

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 realises 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.


The book – The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams – took longer than I expected. I was quite excited when I first saw the title and read the blurb. A novel about words, their etymology, dictionaries, scholars, researchers, lexicographers, libraries… It seemed like a treat.

Esme Nicoll, the main protagonist, is introduced at a very young age and then grows into a woman in her thirties quite slowly. She grows up in her father’s workplace and falls in love with words. Her relationship with him is wonderful—the instance where she has her first periods is endearing. Their mutual love for language strengthens their bond.

As time passes, the story naturally becomes more about Esme’s personal issues. Her pregnancy, and her responses to various issues, such as the women’s suffrage movement and the casualties of England at war, gain prominence.

Esme seemed passive and bewildered by it all. Her passion for words also seemed dull after a while. For example, Esme collects words used by the underprivileged, which are excluded from the Dictionary. However, her collection of words goes into a trunk under Lizzie’s bed.

Later the man in her life publishes a single copy of it and gifts it to her. Similarly, although she understands why women’s rights are important, she never does anything about it.

The other characters were brilliant and memorable. I would have liked to hear more about Edith Thompson, who acts like Esme’s self-appointed aunt. She is an expert historian and researcher. She has a circle of scholar friends who visit her house regularly for afternoon tea.

Similarly, the characters of Edith’s sister and Lizzie, a lifelong servant at the Murray household, are also quite interesting. Lizzie’s mother died when she was eleven. She and her siblings were sent to orphanages. Then she becomes a servant, working more than 16 hours a day, rising earlier than everyone else in the household, and going to bed after them.

Although she has no life of her own or any chance of a husband or family, she wants no part of the suffragist movement and is not convinced that her lot would change. She is simply thankful not to be out on the streets, fending for herself.

The writing is good. The epilogue and the author’s note at the end are quite interesting.

Williams has researched the words used by women and the underprivileged, their importance in their lives, and how these were ignored or dismissed by people in charge of creating dictionaries quite well.

To me, this is the most interesting aspect of the story. However, it is often swept aside in favour of other plot threads. My enthusiasm started draining away when that happened.

To summarize—a good book that missed being great by a hair.

One reply on “The Dictionary of Lost Words”

Wow, It does sound like a really intriguing book, I’m sorry it didn’t quite meet expectations or how Esme’s lack of action frustrated you. I would have wanted to see her try to do something about it or to help women’s suffrage and not just bystander. Does sound like a book worth reading though! Thanks for sharing your review!


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