In this remarkable debut based on actual events, as a team of male scholars compiles the first Oxford English Dictionary, one of their daughters decides to collect the “objectionable” words they omit.
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. Young 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. She rescues the slip, and when she learns that the word means slave-girl, she begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.
As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women’s and common folks’ experiences often go unrecorded. And so she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: the Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.
Set during the height of the women’s suffrage movement and with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. Inspired by actual events, author Pip Williams has delved into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell this highly original story. Her novel is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.