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The Dictionary of Lost Words Reviews

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The Dictionary of Lost Words

Pip Williams

4.00 out of 5

3 reviews

Imprint: Chatto & Windus
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publication date: 8 Apr 2021
ISBN: 9781784743864

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.

4 stars out of 5
Helen Sullivan
16 Apr 2021

"a gentle, hopeful story"

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.


4 stars out of 5
Patricia Nicol
9 Apr 2021

"animates a fascinating history and imbues it with a feminist slant"

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. A relevant inquiry: last year the OED updated classifications of dozens of words including “woman”. While the novel flags a little in its final quarter, this is a captivating debut with a memorable heroine.

4 stars out of 5
Antonia Senior
7 Apr 2021

"Pip Williams has conjured an extraordinary, charming novel"

This novel was inspired by the accidental omission of the word “bondmaid” from the Oxford English Dictionary in 1901. From this quirky lexicographical incident Pip Williams has conjured an extraordinary, charming novel.... This gentle debut, shortlisted for the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction, builds to a shattering finale. The opening chapters seem to promise something slight and fey, but Williams pins a whole, rich life to the page. You do not end a book in a storm of tears without first coming to love the characters and their world.