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The Dictionary of Lost Words

by Pip Williams

Animates a fascinating history and imbues it with a feminist slant – The Sunday Times

Australian author, Pip Williams writes that her debut novel “began as two simple questions. Do words mean different things to men and women? And if they do, is it possible that we have lost something in the process of defining them?”  This is the premise of her delightful book which has been shortlisted for the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction.

Helen Sullivan wrote this fabulous review of The Dictionary of Lost Words in the Guardian a few weeks ago:  In 1901, a concerned member of the public wrote to the men compiling the first Oxford English Dictionary to let them know that there was a word missing. In 1857 the Unregistered Words Committee of the Philological Society of London had decided that Britain needed a successor to Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary. It had taken 40 years for the first volume – the letters A and B – to be published, and now they had only gone and left out a word.

The word was “bondmaid”, and when Pip Williams learned of its exclusion, she knew she had the makings of a novel. The Dictionary of Lost Words tells the story of the OED’s compilation through the fictional Esme, daughter of one of the men working on it, and her interactions with characters based on the real men and women behind the book.

A bondmaid is a young woman bound to serve until her death. As Williams explains in her author’s note, uses of the word had been supplied by members of the public – an important part of how the dictionary was compiled – but the piece of paper showing the final definition is still missing from the archives today.
In the novel, this is Esme’s doing: when the word falls off a table in the Scriptorium or “scrippy” – the Oxford garden shed in which the dictionary is compiled – she pockets it. Then she starts collecting more words that the editors exclude or lose. Eventually, she includes these and others heard on the streets (knackered, latchkeyed, cunt, fuck and dollymop) in her own manuscript, Women’s Words and their Meanings.

Its a lovely read with a clever feminist look at words and their meanings.  It starts slowly then gathers momentum as it sweeps you up in the world of words!  

Click here to watch Pip Williams explaining the background to her book and click here for a great piece on how the Oxford English Dictionary came to life in James Murray’s garden shed in Oxford.  And while you’re at it, DO watch The Profesor and the Madman starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn about James Murray.  Its on Box Office at the moment. Click here to watch the trailer.

This novel was inspired by the accidental omission of the word “bondmaid” from the Oxford English Dictionary in 1901. From this quirky lexicographical incident Pip Williams has conjured an extraordinary, charming novel…. The Times

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