Culture Trips

Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams review – a gentle, hopeful story | Fiction

In 1901, a concerned member of the public wrote to the men compiling the first Oxford English Dictionary to let them know that there was a word missing. In 1857 the Unregistered Words Committee of the Philological Society of London had decided that Britain needed a successor to Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary. It had taken 40 years for the first volume – the letters A and B – to be published, and now they had only gone and left out a word.

The word was “bondmaid”, and when Australian author Pip Williams learned of its exclusion, she knew she had the makings of a novel. The Dictionary of Lost Words tells the story of the OED’s compilation through the fictional Esme, daughter of one of the men working on it, and her interactions with characters based on the real men and women behind the book.

A bondmaid is a young woman bound to serve until her death. As Williams explains in her author’s note, uses of the word had been supplied by members of the public – an important part of how the dictionary was compiled – but the piece of paper showing the final definition is still missing from the archives today.

In the novel, this is Esme’s doing: when the word falls off a table in the Scriptorium or “scrippy” – the Oxford garden shed in which the dictionary is compiled – she pockets it. Then she starts collecting more words that the editors exclude or lose. Eventually, she includes these and others heard on the streets (knackered, latchkeyed, cunt, fuck and dollymop) in her own manuscript, Women’s Words and their Meanings.

Williams writes that her novel “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?” From the local suffragettes Esme learns that “sisters” can mean comrades. She puzzles over the definition of “mother” and whether it excludes a woman who has a stillbirth, or who gives her daughter up for adoption, or whose son dies in the first world war.

Some readers may be deterred by Esme’s virtuousness and smooth edges. To others, this gentle, hopeful story will be a balm for nerves frazzled by the pandemic or patience fried by sexism. “Everything I do gets eaten or dirtied or burned,” Lizzie, the housemaid working for very little money for the dictionary’s first editor, tells Esme. “At the end of the day there’s no proof I’ve been here at all.” It is Lizzie who assures Esme of the relevance of “bondmaid” and provides its definition.

Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is published by Vintage (£14.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.

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