The Dictionary of Lost Words, a review by Tanya

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Dictionary of Lost Words
Pip Williams
Narrator Pippa Bennett-Warner

11 Hours
Published April 6, 2021 by Random House Audio

Amazon | Goodreads

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About the Book:

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip, and when she learns that the word means “slave girl,” she begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.

As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women’s and common folks’ experiences often go unrecorded. And so she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: the Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.

Set during the height of the women’s suffrage movement and with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. Inspired by actual events, author Pip Williams has delved into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell this highly original story. The Dictionary of Lost Words is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.

My Review:

Words. Women’s Words. This is the story of both. And yes, they were two separate groups according to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

I was charmed and captivated with the first half of this story. Esme growing up surrounded, literally, by words. How they shaped her life, how she found comfort, joy and love in them. I loved the idea of Esme sitting under the table hoping for a falling scrap of paper, loved her relationship with Lizzie and her introduction to the Women’s Suffrage movement.

When Esme framed certain words as Women’s Words and when she spoke of how they were received (or not), it brought actual tears to my eyes. I had to stop the audio and just sit with the thought of how much pain, anguish and struggle women have gone through to bring us the rights that we have today. And how there are still Women’s Words. How we don’t own these words but we are defined by them, and usually not in a flattering light. It resonates with me that we women still have so much to fight for – respect in the workplace, salary equivalency, body autonomy, freedom to live how we choose, I could go on and on and on.

To say that the first half of this book touched a place deep inside of me is an understatement.

The later part of the book however, felt very disconnected to me. Esme floundered through her adult years of her life, in my opinion, not choosing sides, gathering important information but not doing anything with it, etc. It seemed that those around her made more important efforts than she did, which makes her more of a side character in her own story, unfortunately. The ending felt very rushed to me and left me feeling a little let down again, due in part to the lack of effort or activity from Esme in her own life.

Overall, the book was interesting and definitely worth a read for Historical Fiction lovers, Women’s Suffrage movement interest or just lover of words.

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