In my early twenties whilst living in Portugal I took it upon myself to read the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from cover to cover in search of words I did not know (we had no TV in the house). When I found one of particularly interest, such as discombobulated (still one of my favourites), I wrote it down in my own notebook for later reference. At the time I remember wondering how words got into and out of the dictionary.
Words define us, they explain us, and, on occasion, they serve to control or isolate us.
The first part of the OED was originally published in 1884, twenty-seven years after the idea was initally proposed by members of the Philological Society of London. It was a massive endeavour because the English language is forever evolving, so its documentation can quickly become incomplete. In 1901 a concerned citizen wrote to the men compiling the OED to raise concerns about a missing word – bondmaid – a young woman bound to serve until her death. It was this idea of a missing word that sparked Pip Williams idea to write the Dictionary of Lost Words.
Words are like stories … They change as they are passed from mouth to mouth; their meanings stretch or truncate to fit what needs to be said.
Our protagonist, Esme spends most of her time under the table in the Scriptorium where her father works on the compilation of the first OED. One day a lexicographer drops a slip of paper containing a word. Esme saves the word and places the paper in a wooden suitcase in the housemaids room. The word is ‘bondmaid’. The event sets Esme on a path of collecting lost words, from the scriptorium, but also from the stallholders in the covered market whose words are often considered vulgar. Esme collects the words in her own manuscript, Women’s Words and their Meanings.
A vulgar word, well placed and said with just enough vigour, can express far more than its polite equivalent.
Set when the women’s suffrage was at its peak, Dictionary of Lost Words is a poetic, thought provoking story about the power of language, who controls the narrative, and that women need to be at the table when decisions are made about which words and stories are preserved.