The Dictionary of Lost Words

Written by Pip Williams
Review by Christine Childs

The Dictionary of Lost Words is the first novel by English-born, Australian author, Pip Williams. Set in Oxford, England, the novel spans over forty years, from the late Victorian period, through the Great Wars to the end of the 1920s, as told in the first person by Esme Nicoll.

Esme is a precocious, motherless child with a doting father, who is employed as a lexicographer on the development of the first Oxford English Dictionary. As she plays under the word-sorting table, the young Esme starts to collect dropped and discarded word slips. She keeps them in a tin box under the maid’s bed. Over the years she accumulates enough lost words to create an alternative dictionary that represents women’s suffering.

The Dictionary of Lost Words gives us the emotional story of Esme’s coming of age and eventual employment as part of the research team, against a backdrop of male-dominated employment and the emerging women’s suffrage movement.

Williams purportedly started to question whether words meant different things to men and women. She decided to explore this through the story of the decades long, development of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Dictionary of Lost Words concerns itself with the gaps between the lines of the dominant male narrative, choosing instead the usually overlooked, everyday language of ordinary women.

It’s a masterfully written, beautiful first novel that tells a fascinating story of language, love and loss.