If dictionaries, words and love please you, you’ll enjoy this book

Review: Vivien Horler

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams (Chatto & Windus)

When I was a news editor, a crime reporter whose mother tongue was not English,  wrote an article about a hold-up and said the victim had been “gunpointed”.

I was delighted by the word: its meaning was plain, and it was more concise than “held up at gunpoint”.

But I didn’t let it through, because “gunpointed” was not a proper word and I didn’t think it belonged in the newspaper. I was wrong.

The both moving and delightful Dictionary of Lost Words is about all about the compilation of the monumental Oxford English Dictionary, a project that was set to take 10 years and eventually took 70. It was published in 12 volumes, which came out fitfully over the years and was completed in 1928.

The novel is also about the words that for one reason or another didn’t make it into the first edition of the dictionary.

Sometimes it was because they were deemed crude; or had not been written down – like gunpointed; or dealt with matters of no concern to the educated white male lexicographers; or literally fell through the cracks, like “bondmaid”.

This novel, which starts in 1887, is based on fact, but comes at the truth from a different perspective, that of a young woman, Esme Nicoll, whose father is a lexicographer. She spends years as a child under the big table in the Scriptorium, a converted garden shed in the garden of the home of Sir James Murray, primary editor of the dictionary.

The walls of the Scriptorium are lined with pigeonholes that are home to thousands of slips of paper. These slips, in fact about the size of postcards, each carry a word, and then a quotation which makes the word’s meaning clear. If, like so many, the word has multiple meanings, there is a slip for each meaning, each with its quotation.

But one of the rules of the dictionary is that all the quotations must have appeared in print somewhere, so much of the vocabulary of working class or uneducated people never makes it into the dictionary at all.

Although a grown-up Esme works at the Scriptorium, dealing with mail, sorting slips, collecting proofs from the Press and taking them back to be read, she is indignant about the missing words. This prompts her to starts a slip collection of her own. Lizzie, the Murray’s kitchen/house maid, gives her the word for one of the first of her slips:


“I get up before dawn to make sure everyone in the big house will be warm and fed when they wake, and I don’t go to sleep till they is snoring. I feel knackered half the time, like a worn-out horse. No good for nothing.” – Lizzie Lester, 1902”

Lizzie takes Esme to the Covered Market where she meets people who use salty language with which she is unfamiliar. Mabel, a stallholder, broadens Esme’s vocabulary considerably, and also teaches her a startling limerick involving the C-word. (The C-word certainly didn’t make it into the first edition of the dictionary, despite a provenance going back to Chaucer.)

The dictionary and words play a pivotal role in Esme’s life – and in this story – but she has other interests too. She falls in with an actress and suffragette and goes on demonstrations, she develops an interest in the theatre, she has something of a fling with the actress’s brother, she spends time with her aunt Ditte who is a mentor and a supplier of quotations to Dr Murray.

And she is drawn to a compositor at the Press, who is torn at the outbreak of World War I between his duty to the dictionary and his duty to his country.

While she is a timid suffragette, Esme believes women’s voices should be heard, and records what others would simply – or prefer to –forget.

This is a wonderful novel about love, loss, about the glories of the city of Oxford, casual sexism, the fight for women’s rights, the horror of war – and about words, both “official” and unofficial, like gunpointed. I loved it.

(If, after you’ve read it, you want a historical account of the making of the dictionary, British author Simon Winchester has written it: The Meaning of Everything, which I’m now going to reread.)



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