“Words define us, they explain us, and, on occasion, they serve to control or isolate us.” The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams was set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its peak and the Great War emerged. The book discloses a lost narrative concealed between the pages of a past written by men. Have you ever wondered how your name got its meaning? Have you ever wondered which words in the Oxford English Dictionary would define you because of your gender?
In the year 1901, the word ‘bondmaid’ was found to be missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This story is about the girl who stole the word – Esme. Esme is born into the world of words. She is motherless and irrepressibly inquisitive. She spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’. Scriptorium is a garden shed in Oxford, where her father and a group of dedicated lexicographers are assembling words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary.
Esme’s place is however beneath the sorting table where her presence is unheard and unseen. One day, a slip containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. She rescues the slip and stores it in an old wooden container. The container belongs to Lizzie, Esme’s friend. Lizzie is a young servant in the massive house. Lizzie is however 8-years older than Esme, she played the role of a mother and companion, especially when Esme got banished from Scriptorium for interfering with the work. Esme found a purpose. She started to collect the misplaced and neglected words from the Scriptorium. She wanted the words to have their definitions.
Over time, she realizes that some words are more significant than other words. And, those words and meanings related to women’s experiences frequently go unrecorded. While she devoted her life covertly to the Oxford English Dictionary, she started collecting words for another dictionary named The Dictionary of Lost Words. Esme fell in love with words when the importance of words was at its height. The words that people are not aware of but must be, and words that are offensive but people should be familiar with words that define the world especially the current state – suffrage, the casualties of war, the place of women in society, and more.
The real story is also about a garden shed in Oxford where James Murray, a real-life lexicographer, built a Scriptorium behind his house where he along with his team worked hard on collecting words and their meanings. Murray had eleven children. They were all involved in this work of collecting words.
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is a fine example of the historical fiction genre. Even though the word ‘bondmaid’ sounds distasteful and certainly not pleasant for the ears, isn’t reality the same? The word ‘bondmaid’ which means female servant justifies the story and the plot. One of the best aspects of this book is that it raises a profound question – whether words have separate meanings for men and women? Is there any word that is just for women? Have we lost something in the process of defining words? This book will compel you to take time and even hesitate before giving a firm ‘NO’. This is certainly praiseworthy writing because that is what the genre of historical fiction is meant to do. They are meant to portray the picture of the times and the reality without any sweet words and masks.
Also Read: Finding Me by Viola Davis