Off the Charts and On the Horizon – the dictionary of lost words (Pip Williams)

Ahoy there me mateys!  Though this log’s focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult, this Captain does have broader reading tastes. So occasionally I will share some novels that I enjoyed that are off the charts (a non sci-fi, fantasy, or young adult novel), as it were.  I received an eArc of this historical fiction through NetGalley in exchange for me honest musings.

Title: the dictionary of lost words

Author: Pip Williams

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Publication Date: TODAY!!! (hardcover/e-book)

ISBN: 978-0593160190

Source:  NetGalley

The Dictionary of Lost Words

As a reader, I am endlessly exhilarated when I learn new words and I also love seeing how language changes over time.  Back in the day, I read the professor and the madman which dealt with the making of the OED.  I adored it.  However it never occurred to me to ask if there were women that played a significant part in the OED.  Then Matey Kate posted a introduction to this book that listed this blurb:

Summary: In 1901, the word ‘Bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.

She also posted a link to Matey Lisa’s lovely review and I was hooked.  This is a historical fiction detailing the role of some of the women working on the OED.  The story is told through the eyes and life of Esme, a fictional character, whose father is one of the men tasked at defining the English words.

I absolutely loved this book.  For me it was the play on language and the insight into what the daily life of putting the OED could look like given that it took over 70 years to complete.  I had never thought about the rejected words and definitions or how male attitudes could have infringed on how it was put together.  I never thought about the prolonged length of production time had an effect on how words were chosen over time.  It was also interesting to get a different perspective on how events like WWI and women’s suffrage impacted the OED.

As for Esme’s story, I enjoyed the first half of the book best.  That was the section dealing with how the OED was put together and dealt with the men working there.  The second second was focused more on Esme’s relationships and the voting rights issues and war.  It was well written, I just personally wasn’t enthralled with the direction Esme’s life took and how the focus shifted off of the OED.

That said, this book was a super quick and fun read and I recommend it to word lovers and historical fiction lovers alike.  Arrr!

So lastly . . .

Thank ye kindly Ballantine Books!

Side note: Did ye know that J. R. R. Tolkien was employed by the OED in 1919 and 1920?  He researched etymologies in the Waggle to Warlock sections.  Arrr!

Goodreads has this to say about the novel:

In 1901, the word ‘Bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.

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. Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.

Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences often go unrecorded. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

Set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It’s a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape the world and our experience of it.

To visit the author’s website go to:

Pip Williams – Author

To buy the novel visit:

the dictionary of lost words

To add to Goodreads go to:

Yer Ports for Plunder List

17 thoughts on “Off the Charts and On the Horizon – the dictionary of lost words (Pip Williams)

  1. Hello! Just finished reading this book and I loved it! I must say that I enjoyed most the second part of the book. While it was quite sad because of the war, I also felt it was more education in terms of history, which I enjoyed a lot!
    How interesting that J. R. R. Tolkien was part of the OED team! 😀


  2. Great review! I am also interested in reading about words and language, so I’ve been curious about this one. I didn’t realize it was specifically focused on women working with the OED, which makes it even more appealing now. I enjoyed reading your thoughts, and am glad to see you mostly liked the book and would recommend it! 🙂


  3. A wonderful review, Cap:). When I studied Feminism, I began to realise the importance of language – and that if the words weren’t there, or were ever so slightly slanted, then perceptions are completely altered. So this one sounds right up my alley.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel a bit silly for having really never thought about how meanings get slanted and their impact. I mean it makes sense but it never occurred to me the damage that could ensue. I do hope ye read and enjoy this one.
      x The Captain

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It hadn’t occurred to me before I did the course, either. But it’s interesting – once I became attuned to how words are used, I realised just how often we are being overtly manipulated…


  4. This looks interesting. I will have to look into it.

    Have you seen Word by Word by Kory Stamper? It’s a bit of a memoir and mostly a boom about dictionaries. I haven’t read it yet, but Olive at A Book Olive gave it five stars, and her recommendations have always been spot on for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This sounds really fascinating! I loved reading through the OED when I was in school (I had unusual procrastination techniques) but I never thought about how the words got to be in there in the first place. I certainly never thought about words being LEFT OUT. That would have been unthinkable to young me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also read the OED for fun. The First Mate and I even tried to buy the hardcover versions of it at one point but couldn’t justify the expense. It is still unthinkable to me that words were left out. I thought it was weird how long sh*t and f*ck took to make it into the dictionaries.
      x The Captain


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