Book Report: The Dictionary of Lost Words

Rating: 5 out of 5.

One of the main things I’ve been doing while in Hilton Head is read. My crochet project really isn’t working out. I think I’ll try it with different yarn and do something else with the yarn I started on. Anyway, I just read The Dictionary of Lost Words (2022), by Pip Williams, an Australian novelist.

I was probably doomed to love this book, because it’s about words and touches on topics I’m fond of, like women’s rights. Of course, it would need to be written well, and for sure, this book had some beautiful writing. My friend who had already read this book got a look on her face like bliss when she described how much she enjoyed Pip Williams’s writing.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is that, while it’s fiction, its plot is woven around real people and real events. The novel follows the progress of the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first edition and the dedicated lexicographers who put it together. What a monumental undertaking THAT was. I was fascinated to learn how Dr. Murray and his team compiled words and definitions. Ooh, so much intrigue went into all that editing and defining.

The most important thing that Williams does by sharing her writing with us, though, is highlight the contributions that women made to the dictionary, which (naturally) was overlooked at the time. She winds information about the state of women in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including how different the lives of women are from different social strata. I was impressed at how respectfully Williams treated women of all classes and brought them to life. I loved how the elderly former prostitute with a salty vocabulary is also depicted as a skilled woodcarver who is wise in ways that are helpful to the protagonist, Esme.

Esme isn’t real, but her story resonates with anyone who’s led a life as a woman today. I could easily see myself dealing with the problems and dilemmas Esme faces, as well as how she learns about life, love, and death. Williams doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships women endured in the days before women had the right to vote, to contribute to work, even to be a “scholar.”

Sadly, I see some of the issues the women in The Dictionary of Lost words face are still facing so many women today. As we lose our reproductive rights, we need women like the former prostitute, for example. The societal information about how life was during my grandmother’s youth was sobering, but the ways that women worked to contribute to society and make things better ring true today.

And as for the words, oh, it was my idea of a good time to see how Esme collected women’s and common people’s words, the ones that were deemed too coarse for the OED. She was a linguist after my own heart (I did research on the language of Japanese women when I was an academic).

This book makes you wish it would never end, because you end up very fond of the people you meet there, like Lizzie the servant who Esme relies on her whole life, or Ditte, the aristocratic academic who contributes hundreds of definitions to the dictionary (she was a real person). And yes, the men in the book were also well rounded and enjoyable to read about.

I read this in the Kindle app and finished on my new Kindle Scribe e-reader, which I’ll review after I’ve used it more. It takes a while to get used to this way of reading, that’s for sure. And setting up the new device at the hotel was challenging. But, I enjoy the size, quietness (I hate phone noise and computer fans), and lack of reflections in the Kindle. It’s much easier to carry around than books. Don’t get me wrong. I like books. No, I love books. But at my age, I’ve pretty much filled up my house with books. I’m hoping to be able to upload my knitting PDFs to the Kindle and mark where I am on them. That would be oh so great.

Time to go to work. Take care, readers.

something poetic

(formerly The Lost Kerryman)

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