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Culture, Literature

The Dictionary of Lost Words

By Pip Williams


This is a novel look at the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary; a mammoth task that took many men more than seventy years to compile. And some women, too. The women, however, have been less celebrated because in the second half of the nineteenth century the contribution of women was limited because of their gender, and because any contribution women made to advances in science and the humanities was largely underplayed.

The Dictionary of Lost Words follows a fictional girl, Esme, through language, literacy, love and loss; a tale that is intertwined with the true story of the development of the dictionary and on the edge of women’s suffrage. Esme poses a fascinating question; as the words being included have been chosen by white men of a certain standing, how well do they reflect the whole of the society and what do we learn from those that are omitted, deliberately or otherwise? The fact that the word ‘bondmaid’ (or slave-girl) was accidentally missed out from the pages of the first part of the Oxford English Dictionary – published in 1888 – speaks volumes. And so, Esme begins to collect the words used by women and common folk which she believes are of equal value and might otherwise remain unrecorded.

It’s a moving story, spanning four decades; a touching account of persistence, ambition and women’s relationships, and a social commentary on conditions for girls in Oxford 150 years ago. Largely based in the triangle between its Jericho quarter (and Oxford University Press on Walton Street), the ‘Scriptorium’ (a large shed in a garden along the Banbury Road), and the Bodleian Library, it is easy for local readers to imagine the young Esme cycling to and fro, the life she lived and the life of those born to serve. As we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, it’s also a great reminder of both how far we have come and how far women globally still have to go.

For an alternative look at the development of the Oxford English Dictionary and the people involved, check out the 2019 film, The Professor and the Madman based on an excellent book of the same name. The film stars Mel Gibson and Sean Penn and gives not only a view of the development of this milestone text; it also offers a real insight into madness, sorrow, strength and redemption.

Out now in paperback -


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