Sunday, December 26, 2021

The Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words
  The Dictionary of Lost Words
Author:  Pip Williams
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2021. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0593160193 / 978-0593160190

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "before the lost word, there was another."

Favorite Quote:  "Women don't have to live lives determined by others. They have choices, and I choose not to live the rest of my days doing as I'm told and worrying about what people will think. That's no life at all."

This book is completely not what I expected. I choose to read it because - well, dictionary and words, lost ones at that! The title itself draws me in. The description then references the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary is an integral part of life and education. It has always existed in my life. I have never really given much thought to the fact that at one time, there was no dictionary. I have never really look at the history of how a dictionary might be created. Who creates it? Who defines each word? How? Who chooses what word to include and which word not to? "All words are not equal (and as I write this, I think I see your concern more clearly: if the word of one group are considered worthier of preservation than those of another...well, you have given me pause for thought.)"

I am a firm believer in that words have power. However, what gives a word its power? "I prefer to say that I give them substance - a real word is one that is said out loud and means something to someone."

All that draws me into the book.

At the beginning, I am taken aback. The main character is a child at the feet of her father, who is involved in the creation of the dictionary. More than that, the child is a girl. This is significant. In the author's own words:
  • "This book began as two simple questions: Do words mean different things to men and women? And if they do, is it possible that we have lost something in the process of defining them?"
  • "This novel is my attempt to  understand how the way we define language may define us. Throughout, I have tried to conjure images and express emotions that bring our understanding of words into question. By putting Esme among the words, I was able to imagine the effect they might have had on her, and the effect she might have had on them."
  • "From the beginning, it was important that I weave Esme's fictional story through the history of the Oxford English Dictionary as we know it. I soon realised that this history also included the women's suffrage movement in England as well as World War I. In all three cases the timelines of events and the broad details have been preserved. Any errors are unintentional."
The combination of the history of words themselves and the history of women makes for a powerful story. "It came back to me then, and I realized that the words most often used to define us were words that described our function in relation to others."

I find myself not only following Esme's story but also looking up and reading the history of the dictionary, the women's suffrage movement, and the timing of that history. The stories of the other women that surround Esme herself are equally powerful. That power is depicted as Esme herself realizes the significance of the experiences of these woman and how they parallel and differ from hers.

This book does what I absolutely love about historical fiction. It introduces me to a history I might otherwise never have read. In this case, it allows a glimpse not into history I might never have read but also history I have never really considered.

"Words are like stories ... They change as they are passed from mouth to mouth; their meanings stretch or truncate to fit what needs to be said." This story has made me stop and think about the words we use. For that lesson, it will stay with me for a long while.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.


  1. You've sold me. I'm only slightly wary of the rabbit holes it may take me down.

    This will be the fourth book I've purchased in readiness for 2022 with one remaining to finish out this year, and I'll be relieved to see the backside of 2021 out the door!

    1. I look forward to hearing what you thing. Rabbit holes are one of my favorite aspects of historical fiction for down the rabbit hole lies the actual history

    2. Thirty four pages in, I don't want this book to ever end. Kindle won't let me highlight every page, unfortunately. I should have bought a hard copy.

    3. I hope it lives up to the beginning for you. I have often read a book and decided I loved it enough to want it permanently on my shelf and then bought the hardcover.