The Dictionary Of Lost Words

The Dictionary Of Lost Words

The Dictionary Of Lost Words

by Pip Williams

Affirm Press 2020, and Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, 2021

Who controls what words go into the dictionary?

Times have changed since The Oxford English Dictionary was first published in 1928. That dictionary was designed along “historical principles,” ie. each word was defined from its use in written communications down the centuries. The work started in the 1850s and was assisted by numerous volunteers who sent in words and their attributed uses to the compilers, who worked near Oxford University. The volunteers included both women and men, but the compilers – those who decided which words would be included, were, given the Victorian/Edwardian era in which the work was conceived and completed, white men of a certain class.

As anyone who has parented a teenager knows, this dictionary, while the first of its kind, hardly presented the last word(s). Many more words fill the vocabulary of English speakers of the twenty-first century, as the language continues to change.

Pip Williams asks the question: what happened to words used by and relating to women? Her heroine is Esme, the motherless daughter of one of the men who spent his career in the Scriptorium, a converted garden shed in which the incoming words were shelved in little pigeon-holes. (No doubt this is the origin of the word “pigeon-holed” — defined as classifying something, “sometimes unfairly,” according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, published by Oxford’s rival in 1995.)

Incorporating the time of the First World War and the women’s suffrage movement in England, Williams’ story spans about 25 years. Her protagonist Esme spent much of her childhood under the big table on which the compilers worked. Sometimes the little scraps of paper on which the words were written floated down to her and she started collecting them. Later she searched and found some words of her own as she progressed to a more liberated womanhood than her forebears could aspire to.

Issues of class, as well as gender, underlie this story. For all her tentative embrace of women’s rights, Esme still can’t conceive of a more independent life for her maid, Lizzie. Lizzie recognizes herself in the word “bondmaid.” Lizzie, though legally free, is bound by her class and beliefs to a life of service, and Esme, while devoted to Lizzie, accepts that Lizzie will cook, clean, and manage Esme’s domestic life for as long as she lives. The word “bondmaid” in fact, was found to be missing from the dictionary in 1901. Williams turns her story in part on this. Was the word lost because domestic labor is simply unrecognized? The author raises many questions about how words define how society values people.