Book Review- The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Available: January 2021
Is a dictionary compiler free to exclude words because he or she does not approve of such a word?Or words used in ordinary vernacular , but which don’t exist in written usage, be rejected? These are just two of the questions which come into the mind as one reads Australian PipWilliams first and most engaging novel.
Although fiction, Williams sets her her novel in the grandly named “scriptorium”- in reality a tin shed- in Sir James Murray’s Oxford garden – somewhere he can supervise the lexicographers(including his own 11 children) as they sort through the mammoth numbers of words collected and suggested, to decide what was and what was not to be in the first Oxford Dictionary in the 1870s and 80s .The contributions came from all over the English speaking world and many readers will already know about the incarcerated insane murderer who made such , from his prison and made famous in Simin Winchester’s “The Surgeon of Crowsthorne”. Most of the lexicographers were men, though Williams works in one of the women , Edith Thompson , into the narrative and it is salutary to note this when considering the choice of words to be included.
Our motherless heroine Essie May is raised by her lexicographer father helped by the Murrays Irish (poor but
proper ) servant. As she passes her mornings sitting beneath her father’s table in the scriptorium whilst Lizzie is working on her household chores, her father sorts and notes words sent in by the public for consideration, judging those suitable for inclusion, and discarding others. One morning she finds on the floor a discarded ‘ word’, either accidentally dropped or purposely discarded, and thus begins her collection of lost words which she follows all through her life.
Her first lost word is ” bondswoman”, a word not included in the first Oxford edition. It was added in1901 when its omission was discovered. As she grows to adulthood, Essie learns that only words cited in Literature or written sources can be included. Her visits to the markets exposes her to the common people’s language , often vulgar, and many words , pertaining to women and women’s concerns are omitted from the Dictionary. These she collects.
If this sounds a dry premise for a novel , “The Dictionary of Lost Words” is anything but! Thomas Keneally said it is a book to read twice as the first time , one reads to see what happens and the second slowly to be sure you haven’t missed something important.We see a slice of life encompassing many changes in the way we have lived since 1882, and in our understanding of language.
We see the changing role of women and the privations caused by the Great War.
The novel’s beginning is a slow burn as we come involved with the characters and their individual stories, but once started I was captivated by the strong prose, the well drawn characters and the re-creation of a period , not my own.
I agree with Thomas Keneally, who early this year said he is certain”a more original novel will not be published this year”
As Essie ,to a lexicographer who claims that “all words are not equal”replies “You are not the arbiter of Knowledge, sir. It is not for you to judge the importance of these words, simply to allow others to do so”
I recommend the novel, either just because it’s a good original novel and also for those who love the English language in all its wonderful variety.