The Final Word on Words . . . The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Last month my Rowdy Readers book group met for the first time in over a year. We did it big . . . we took a field trip to Barnes and Noble! We spent over an hour simply wandering around looking at new releases, reading blurbs and back flaps, and just loving being around all those books, before deciding on The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. It wasn’t the only book each of us bought, of course, just the one we chose to read as a group.

While the story itself is fiction, it follows the true story of the compilation of the first Oxford English Dictionary. The book opens in 1887 with a small group of lexicographers gathered around a table in the Scriptorium . . . and young Esme, daughter of one of the men, beneath the sorting table quietly collecting the scraps of paper with words the men either accidently drop or more often cast off as duplicates, unimportant, or not worthy of inclusion in the dictionary. She is five-years-old when she finds her first word and secretes it in a box under a housemaid’s bed. This begins a lifetime of gathering words.

The Oxford English Dictionary was compiled over decades, edited by Dr. James Murray, with each letter taking years to complete. The system included volunteers submitting words, lexicographers researching and recording definitions and examples of usage, and final decisions on which words to include.

As the author notes after her own research, “I was left with the impression that the Dictionary was a particularly male endeavor. From what I could glean, all the editors were men, most of the assistants were men, most of the volunteers were men and most of the literature, manuals and newspaper articles used as evidence for how words were used, were written by men. Finally, the Delegates of the Oxford University Press – those who held the purse strings – were men.

Where, I wondered, were the women in this story, and does it matter that they are absent?”

Through Esme, Williams discovers and introduces the real women.

Esme, motherless, is a curious child and encouraged by her father to love words and their meanings. As she gets older, that love propels her to wander the market where she hears words not used in ‘polite society’, words used by women like they’re a secret code, words used by men and women of the working class – all discounted, or used differently, by the men in charge of the Dictionary. Ever present in Esme’s pockets are slips of paper and her pencil to jot down the word, its definition, its use in a sentence, and the source and date when she heard it. After all, one thing Esme knows is that if a word is not written down, does it really even exist?

Esme’s close relationship to a young housemaid and friendship with an actress introduce nuances to words that are felt, more than learned from books, and the Suffragette Movement and World War I provide new words no one ever dreamed of. By her late thirties, Esme’s box – still hidden beneath the bed – is overflowing with slips of collected words.

One of the factual women Williams weaves into her novel is Edith Thompson, a volunteer who submitted words – and often debated Dr. Murray over them. In the novel, Esme is Edith’s goddaughter. Edith and her real-life sister Elizabeth were writers in their own right, as well as valued volunteers for the Dictionary.

Williams includes a timeline at the end of her book and this is one entry:

1928      150 men gather in London’s Goldsmiths’ Hall to celebrate publication of the Oxford English Dictionary, seventy-one years after it was proposed. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin presides. Women are not invited, though three are allowed to sit in the balcony and watch the men eat. Edith Thompson is one of them.

I found the book interesting on its own merit as a work of fiction, and as an introduction on how the Oxford English Dictionary came about. I’ve always wondered how the words are collected and how a dictionary can never be finished because new words are always being coined. Of course new editions are being started almost at the same time the current one goes to print.

But the book also opens up other areas of discussion. What do we lose when one segment of a community or population has no voice? Whose language is deemed not proper and so not written down? Do we hear words differently because of our gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic standing?

It’s always interesting in my poetry critique group how we can get caught up on one word because we hear it differently. One time I used the phrase I witness in a poem, and while that particular section was about faith, I used the word witness to mean seeing. Another poet, because of her faith background, heard it as a proclamation.  It took us a few minutes of discussion to figure out how each of us was hearing it. Either way worked as it was written, but the latter wasn’t my intention and changed the context of the poem.

As Esme knows, words matter. What she discovers is that capturing the meaning is not that simple.

My Rowdy Readers meet this Wednesday. I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say about The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. I know I recommend it.

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