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.
Motherless and irrepressibly curious, Esme spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of lexicographers are gathering words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary.
Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day, she sees a slip containing the word bondmaid flutter to the floor unclaimed. Esme seizes the word and hides it in an old wooden trunk 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. 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 our experience of the world.
PRAISE for The Dictionary of Lost Words
‘What a novel of words, their adventure and their capacity to define and, above all, challenge the world. There will not be this year a more original novel published. I just know it.’ Tom Keneally, author of Schindler’s List
‘A thoroughly original concept married to beautifully rendered characters, immersive setting and intensely satisfying storytelling – The Dictionary of Lost Words fulfils all the promises of the best historical fiction. Pip Williams’ meticulously imagined novel offers a portrait of an unforgettable woman – resilient, humble, generous, self-knowing and always strong-spined – who invents a provocative solution to the too frequent exclusion of women’s lives and cares from the official register.’ Melissa Ashley, author of The Birdman’s Wife and The Bee and the Orange Tree
About the Author
Pip was born in London, grew up in Sydney and now calls the Adelaide Hills home. She is co-author of the book Time Bomb: Work Rest and Play in Australia Today (New South Press, 2012) and in 2017 she wrote One Italian Summer, a memoir of her family’s travels in search of the good life, which was published with Affirm Press to wide acclaim. Pip has also published travel articles, book reviews, flash fiction and poetry. In The Dictionary of Lost Words she combines her talent for historical research with beautiful storytelling. She has delved into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary and found a tale of missing words and the lives of women lived between the lines.