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The Dictionary of Lost Words: The International Bestseller Hardcover – 8 April 2021
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'If you only read one book this year, let it be this one!' FIVE STAR NETGALLEY READER REVIEW
'An extraordinary, charming novel... Williams pins a whole, rich life to the page' The Times
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.
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.
**SHORTLISTED FOR THE WALTER SCOTT PRIZE FOR HISTORICAL FICTION**
PRAISE FOR THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS
'Set at a time when women's voices were clamouring more than ever to be heard, it moved me greatly to think how history is skewed by those who hold power -- and how important it is that novels like this redress that balance' Elizabeth Macneal, author or The Doll Factory
'A brilliant book about women and words - tender, moving and profound' Jacqueline Wilson
'I absolutely loved this book! Thought-provoking, touching and subtly romantic; I finished it in tears' Katie Fforde
MORE FIVE STAR NETGALLEY READER REVIEWS
'If you're a fan of The Binding and The Betrayals you will surely love this'
'A glorious combination of words, growing up, friendship, love, feminism and so much more'
'The best love letter to words and language'
'This book broke my heart ... I highly recommend it to any historical fiction fans ... it's one I will be reading again'
Frequently bought together
An extraordinary, charming novel... Williams pins a whole, rich life to the page ― The Times
Poignant, perfectly paced... a beautifully nuanced work -- Eithne Farry ― Mail on Sunday
I absolutely loved this book! Thought-provoking, touching and subtly romantic; I finished it in tears -- Katie Fforde
Williams's satisfying novel animates a fascinating history and imbues it with a feminist slant, asking how words mean different things to men and women -- Patricia Nicol ― Sunday Times
This lovely slice of historical fiction... A highly enjoyable resonant tale about the hidden and frequently gendered stories behind the words we take for granted -- Claire Allfree ― Metro
A captivating and slyly subversive fictional paean to the real women whose work on the Oxford English Dictionary went largely unheralded -- Alida Becker ― New York Times Book Review
A gorgeous, unique read ― Sun
This immersive, scrupulously researched debut provides poignant commentary on the ownership of language -- Hephzibah Anderson ― Mail on Sunday
An enchanting story about love, loss and the power of language, what gets recorded and what gets forgotten. Set at a time when women's voices were clamouring more than ever to be heard, it moved me greatly to think how history is skewed by those who hold power -- and how important it is that novels like this redress that balance -- Elizabeth Macneal, author or The Doll Factory
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 -- Thomas Keneally
Inspired by a wisp of fact - a single word accidentally omitted from the Oxford English Dictionary - Pip Williams has spun a marvelous fiction about the power of language to elevate or repress. This is a novel that brings to light not only lost words, but the lost stories of women's lives. It is at once timely and timeless.
In the annals of lexicography, no more imaginative, delightful, charming and clever book has yet been written. And if by writing it Pip Williams has gently rapped my knuckles for wrongly supposing that only white English men led the effort to corral and codify our language, then I happily accept the scolding. Her wonderfully constructed story has helped entirely change my mind.
This charming, inventive, and utterly irresistible novel is the story we all need right now. Words have never mattered more, as Pip Williams illuminates in her unforgettable debut -- Susan Wiggs, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost and Found Bookshop
What a compelling, fresh look at historical women! Lyrically written... This marvellous exploration into the ways in which spoken and written language impact us is a delight and an education -- Marie Benedict, New York Times bestselling author of The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
About the Author
- Publisher : Vintage Publishing (8 April 2021)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 432 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1784743860
- ISBN-13 : 978-1784743864
- Dimensions : 16 x 3.8 x 24.2 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 175,385 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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I didn't think it would be possible to enjoy (and learn from) a better book on lexicography than Winchester's 'The Surgeon of Crowthorne': I was wrong.
The Dictionary of Lost Words is a stately walk through Victorian England's values, from a woman's point of view, but always with the gentle overlay of the Oxford English Dictionary's lexicography. The facts of the task of compiling the OED were fascinating, but more-so the philosophical questions central to this book - What defines 'validity' in a word? Must it have been written down? Does a tabloid newspaper coining a new word, constitute its having been 'written down'? Is slang acceptable? Is slang only acceptable after it's been in use for a time? Should profanities be included, and if not, why not? The protagonist, Esme has to address these questions, then in a profoundly chauvinistic society, she has to present and argue her case. Her 'lost words' are the oral vocabularies of women. Not a topic many men in Victorian England were interested in.
Pip Williams' portrayal of English as a changing language, and her recognition of its inbuilt sexism is fascinating. As Esme observes; Nearly every (polite) term for a woman (such as Miss, Mrs, maiden, harlot) informs the hearer of the virginity-status of the woman concerned... and none of the male terms do equally. Even the derogatory ones such as 'git' do not allude to a man's virginity status.
Then there are the words for women, which have no male equivalent - 'scold'. Blame encompassed in just one word.
As in real life, nothing happens quickly and with Esme's accidental death, some actions are left to those who come after. This may disappoint those who like all the loose ends of a story tied up before the final page. But these characters, for the most part, are based on real individuals.
Finally this is a love story - typical of the age. Love finally declared... too late, bound by the constraints of the society (which impose on Esme a belief she is not worthy of happiness in marriage), and ended too soon by the horrohs of WWI.
A wonderful book. The best I have read for years.
I don't know who I wish I could have dinner with more.... Pip Williams, or Esme.
Pip Williams has scripted a highly believable narrative on the development of the Oxford English Dictionary and has magnificently bought all the characters, both real and imagined, to life.
I have carried with me since 1952 a Pocket Oxford Dictionary, a gift from my parents, and ‘bondmaid’ is well described.
Thank you Pip for an amazing debut novel, your descriptive use of words (I could smell and feel the Scriptorium) and your attention to detail. The love between Esme and Gareth was palpable! Congratulations - well done!
I enjoyed the main character Esme who was collecting words that were either discarded by the men in the group or words that women used which were discarded also. She did her research in the markets where the lower classes worked.
There is a lot to say about this book which kept me glued to it however I felt the ending was a bit rushed although neatly tied together.
Top reviews from other countries
The characters are wonderful- so warmly described; from Esme, who feels the responsibility for all of the discarded and unwanted words, to Lizzie who is there for Esme at every turn, to Mabel who provided some of the more ‘fruity ‘ words for Esme’s collection. All women who prove that their voices count as much as the next man.
A truly evocative read that will stay with me for a long time.
The history of our words and the fictional story of Esme who must remain silent and invisible, in the place her father works as a lexicographer, are beautifully combined to tell a story of the discarded words and the dictionary of lost words.
Esme has an irrepressible hunger for knowledge about the origins of words and had fully assimilated with the work of the scriptorium, but somehow her mentors just missed it. One word fascinates Esme – “Bondmaid”, which she learns means "slave girl," but as she collects the discarded words Esme realises that a lot of the words and meanings relating to women's and common folks' experiences are often the ones that go unrecorded and discarded. To give the unspoken words a voice and meaning, Esme produces the “Dictionary of lost words” from the rejected scraps of paper found on the floor.
This is a unique and original story that was such an interesting read particularly when interwoven with true historical references and the history and process of lexicography. I liked it but did not love it. It just seemed to drag a bit too much in the middle of the book and the themes, whilst good separately, didn't gel together as much as they could have. It needed more menace or intrigue. However, the writing was beautiful but a 3.5 rating.