The Dictionary of Lost Words- historical fiction novel
Review,  Historical Fiction

Book Review : The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The Dictionary of Lost Words was thought-provoking, informative, realistic, well researched and perfectly written historical fiction that read like memoir of Esme and OED.

The Dictionary of Lost Words- historical fiction novel

Book Details

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Publication Date : April 8th 2021

Publisher : Random House UK, Vintage

Genre : Historical Fiction

Pages : 384

Rating: 5 out of 5.


In 1901, the word ‘Bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.

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. 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. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.

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. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

Set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It’s a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape the world and our experience of it. 

Disclaimer : I received e-copy of this book via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to publisher and NetGalley.

Review of The Dictionary of Lost Words

If you love words and their meaning, if you’re fascinated by them and how Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was created, process of it, and its history. You should read The Dictionary of Lost Words.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is brilliant and well researched historical fiction that revolved arounds Esme, Oxford English Dictionary edited by James Murray (published in 1928), and how words shaped and defined Esme’s life. It is about words, lost words used by women for women and how they were biased by men of dictionary, life of lexicographer, history, prejudice, courage, empathy, and empowerment.

Writing was beautiful, detailed and descriptive with lyrical prose, from slow to steady paced, told in third person narrative from Esme’s perspective. The Dictionary of Lost Words is set in Oxford that started in 1887 and ended in 1989 (publication of second edition of OED), divided in five parts, five stages of dictionary and Esme’s life.

The beginning is amazing with 5 yrs. old Esme and her father receiving a word slip, with her mother’s name that her father threw in fire and in trying to save it she burnt her fingers and how that event made Esme feel for words that were discarded, thrown away or wasn’t included in the dictionary.  It formed the base of her idea of saving those lost words and collecting them in her treasured trunk of ‘Dictionary of Lost Words’ and the first such word she found was ‘Bondmaid’.

I enjoyed reading the character introduction in first few chapters and introduction of scriptorium (I fell in love with that word and place, just a garden shed turned into workplace for OED).

I rooted for Esme from the very beginning. It was lovely to read inquisitive, innocent motherless child growing under the table where her father, Harry Nicoll -assistant lexicographer, worked with the editor of OED, Dr. James Murray, and other senior and junior assistant lexicographers, observing the work of dictionary and understanding the words. As the story progressed, we see how she found first Bondmaid slip, how much trouble it caused and how that little girl developed with many life experiences.

I felt sad seeing how some people viewed Esme for her burnt figures and her unconventional brought up, how she was treated at boarding school that put her off to schooling. Her perseverance is admirable. Even though she met assistants who didn’t approve of girl or woman in scriptorium, how she knew what she wanted in life even with her bad choices.

I had hard time coming to terms with what Esme decided but looking at the time period and how women were looked at for going through her situation and how the alternative of her decision might have made her life, I understood it, and like said in the book, it wasn’t uncommon and she wasn’t the first for doing so.

Her growth and development is great. She not just understood words and their meaning better but also loved ones and people around her.

I loved Esme’s father for giving her freedom to live around words, not forcing her with anything and let her choose her life path. He isn’t expressive person but his love for his daughter and dilemma related to growing girl and the woman she was becoming shine through his unconditional support.

The word Bondmaid, the first slip Esme put into her treasure trunk wasn’t just word but also a character in this bookLizzie. She is in service of the Murray family and has taken care of the household and Esme since she was just 11 yrs. She is like a mother figure to Esme and her best friend who has Esme’s best interest at heart, she guides, rebukes, supports, and loves Esme whenever needed.

Through Lizzie we understand the meaning of the word, bondmaid. I loved the way she took the meaning of the word in stride when she first heard about it and how she showed it’s not as horrible as Esme felt and gave it a new perspective and meaning as the book progressed.

There are many secondary characters, many I admired and enjoyed their part in Esme’s life as well as their characteristics- Edith and Beth Thompson, Dr. Murray and his daughters, Mabel in the covered market, Gareth, Tilda, Sarah, and Megan. I wish I could talk about all of them but that would be revealing too much with the longest review I would have ever written.

The best part of The Dictionary of Lost Words is, it wasn’t just Esme’s story (which is fictional) but is the story of OED and the lexicographer who worked for it (which is historical fact) and how seamlessly and beautifully the author combined both fictional and historical parts. I couldn’t say what was real history and what was fiction until I read Author’s note at the end.

Most of the characters– Edith and Beth Thompson, Dr Murray and his daughters, assistant Lexicographers, process of making OED and many things and events in this book is real.

I enjoyed reading how OED was created, time it took (71 long years), thankless and endless task of volunteers and scholars for sending word slips with meanings and quotations to lexicographers, assistants researching and finding evidence of those words, editing words, sending it to press, setting keys in press, many drafts and many edits until it’s final and published and reaching in hands of public- it was all brilliant.

There is also mention and details on other historical events that happened during the time period of OED- Women Suffrage and WWI. I loved list of timelines of OED and historical events that happened in that timeline at the end.

I enjoyed how author incorporated many layers in The Dictionary of Lost Words- life of women in that time period, words of common people, how they mean differently to different people, women suffrage giving two words suffragette and suffragist, impact of WWI on people’s life and also on the dictionary, and depression and PTSD- how characters battled with it and came out of it, and how words helped men in wards suffering PTSD.

There are many events that I couldn’t see coming or predict. I felt for Esme and at the same time admired what she decided to do after the scriptorium was moved. Edith’s letter at the end is tragic and I loved how that turned into inspiration.

I was going to rate this 4 but then changed my mind on afterthought. It sure is slow to read, and requires, time, attention, and patience from readers, some parts were even slower but I never wanted to put the book aside, it never felt boring. Really, every aspect, every line, scene, all the words are worth it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I can keep talking about The Dictionary of Lost Words but would draw line here. I wanted to include quotes from this book but there were many lines I loved but looking at length of this review, I have written different post for it that I’ll publish soon.

Overall, The Dictionary of Lost Words was thought-provoking, informative, realistic, well researched and perfectly written historical fiction that read like memoir of Esme and OED. I highly recommend this book to fans of historical fiction.

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Hi, I'm Yesha, an Indian book blogger. Avid and eclectic reader who loves to read with a cup of tea. Not born reader but I don't think I’m going to stop reading books in this life. “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”


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