Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2020

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams

I am going to have to try not to gush about this book.  I am not even going to hint about major prizes. But…

I insist that you get a copy and read it!

Many readers will be familiar with Simon Winchester’s bestseller The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998, later rebadged as The Professor and the Madman) which told the fascinating story of the compilation of Oxford University Press’s New English Dictionary and the people who worked on it for decades.

Compiling the OED was a massive undertaking, covering the historical development of the English language and providing definitions and examples of word usage, with publication beginning in 1884 and not completed until 1928.  It was expanded from ten volumes to twelve in 1933, and republished in a second edition in 1989, (with a third edition currently under development).

OED 1st edition (source: Nova Languages*)

As you can tell from the sexed-up title for the American edition, Winchester’s book focussed on the eccentricity of the dictionary’s most prolific contributor who was an inmate in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum, and the third editor, James Murray who did not live to see the project’s completion.  And if you check out the Wikipedia entry for the OED, you will see immediately that the entire enterprise appears to have been undertaken by men.  As Pip Williams says in the Author’s Note to The Dictionary of Lost Words, when she had read the Winchester book, she…

… was left with the impression that the Dictionary was a particularly male endeavour. […] all the editors were men, most of the volunteers were men and most of the literature, manuals and newspaper articles used as evidence for how words were used, were written by men.  Even the Delegates of the Oxford University Press — those who held the purse strings — were men.  (p. 410).

Williams tracked down the women who played crucial roles in the development of the dictionary : Ada Murray and her adult children Hilda, Elsie and Rosfrith; Edith Thompson and her sister Elizabeth; Eleanor Bradley; and the countless women who wrote novels and biographies and poetry that were considered evidence for the use of one word or another.  But apart from this belated recognition of the unsung work of these talented and diligent women, there was also the critical issue of the dictionary’s bias.  The absence of women meant that the dictionary omitted the way women used words, and the requirement that only the written word was to be included meant that the use of English by the illiterate underclass wasn’t included either.

James Murray in the Scriptorium (Wikipedia)

Based on these true events and a reinvention of the real-life Edith Thompson, Pip Williams’ debut novel imagines a central character with a different vision of the dictionary.  A counter factual, if you like, involving the compilation of a different kind of dictionary.  A love story starring a woman who grew up admiring strong, independent female role models and never wanted to marry.  A woman whose friendship with an illiterate serving girl gave her an entrée to the underclass and a respect for their ways.

When the novel begins it is 1886 in Oxford, and motherless Esme is six years old.  Her devoted father, Harry Nicoll, takes her to his work in the Scriptorium where she plays under the table and absorbs the scholarly diligence of the lexicographers, along with a curiosity about words and how they are used.  In the novel it is Esme who finds on the floor the notorious word ‘bondmaid” omitted from the dictionary, and secretes it in her pinafore to take home.  And in this early scene in the novel we see the bias at work: when Esme tries to understand why their maid Lizzie is fortunate to be ‘in service’ but it would be unfortunate for her, none of the definitions in the Scriptorium explain why ‘service’ means something different for two girls separated by only a few years but a chasm of British class distinctions.

As the novel progresses this motif expands: on the slips of paper that are collected in the Scriptorium’s pigeonholes, the different uses of a word are amassed, along with quotations to illustrate usage, but these rarely include female-gendered usage. I give you one example to whet your appetite: ‘delivered’.  

The OED quoted in the novel defines it as set free; disburdened of offspring; handed over; surrendered.  The 21st century Cambridge online dictionary has more: click here and scroll down to the fourth of five meanings.  My Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary gives 10 meanings.  But was delivered of a baby is such strange, passive way of describing what happens when a baby is born.  It conveys nothing of the experience, nor of the way a woman’s life is fundamentally changed forever.  ‘Mother’ is an inadequate word for that too…

Words matter. As Sarah says of vulgar words (which are the cause of much argument in the Scriptorium):

‘Some words are more than letters on a page, don’t you think? […] ‘They have shape and texture.  They are like bullets, full of energy, and when you give one breath, you can feel its sharp edge against your lip.  It can be quite cathartic in the right context.’ (p.207)

Somehow, I had missed the hype that this novel had generated, but discovered it today in this article at The Guardian.  Trust me, this is one book where the hype is justified.

Roslyn Petelin reviewed the novel for The Conversation. 

*Image credits:

Author: Pip Williams
Title: The Dictionary of Lost Words
Cover and internal design by Lisa White
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925972597, pbk., 423 pages
Purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $32.99

#BuyAustralian: Available from Fishpond The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams or direct from Affirm Press or your local bricks-and-mortar Aussie bookshop if they are still trading online.

 


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa, it sounds like my kind of book!

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    • I think I can confidently say yes:)

      Like

  2. I will do as you insist :-) Naturally. This book has been on my horizon for a while: I really think I need to buy a copy.

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    • Yes. The really nice thing about this is that Affirm Press is a small outfit, and this book’s bestsellerdom is probably making the publisher secure, during an insecure time.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I gave this book to my lexicographer Mum for Easter, and she is enjoying it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, I bet she is! How clever of you to find the perfect gift for her!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds like a fascinating read!

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    • If you love words and playing with how they are used, you’ll really enjoy it:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Gush away! It sounds wonderful. I was taught by a lexicographer for one of my papers at uni and I went in thinking it would be the dullest term ever and came out completely fascinated. I’ll definitely hunt down a copy of this in honour of that time :-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • My only experience of this kind of study of words was with a primary school teacher who was fascinated by etymology and used to jazz up spelling lessons with Greek and Roman roots and so forth. She didn’t expect everyone to learn it, she just put it out there for those who were interested.
      (There were about 50 subjects I wanted to study for my arts degree and I couldn’t choose all of them…)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bought this today! (Due to no library being open). I recently read Other People’s Words by Hilary McPhee due to recommendations on your blog and loved it (also Other People’s Houses). Your primary school teacher sounds inspiring! In the first year of my Arts degree I found so many subjects interesting I dipped into everything I could, such that at the start of second year my academic adviser had to gently suggest that it was time I started to focus…bother!

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        • I’m delighted to hear that you liked the McPhee books!
          Mrs Sheedy was her name. She was very strict, and woe betide you if you hadn’t learned the weekly poetry off by heart, but she was one of the few teachers I remember from my rather fractured education and I owe her a lot. She must be long dead by now.
          It is so very hard to choose, even in secondary school when you have to drop subjects you like in the last two years.

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  6. I’m wondering who the strong,independent female role models were that the author found in the 1880s. Maiden aunts don’t generally get a good run in novels.

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    • I’ve named them! They were real people:)

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  7. I read the Surgeon of Crowthorne years ago, and stumbled across the film version on Netflix just a week or so ago. It’s a rather sentimentalised version, but fairly faithful to the spirit of the book – and has surprisingly big star names in the two leading parts. Not great, but interesting. Lexicography has always intrigued me; I’ve long intended reading Caught in the Web of words, the account of Murray and the OED by his granddaughter. We’re lucky to have a council library that provides free access to the online version. One of my earliest posts was about early lexicographers (and the word ‘cockney’); here’s a link, if you’re interested: http://tredynasdays.co.uk/2013/08/lexicographers-and-cockneys/
    I like the sound of this novel: will try and track it down. Unfortunately the patriarchal stranglehold on all things scholarly persisted well into our own times (still does, but more patchily).

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    • I like the way the dictionary has expanded exponentially because more words keep coming along and the way we use them changes. Apparently the new edition that’s in the works will only ever be digital, which is a practical decision, but sad all the same.
      It’s interesting too that somewhere, somehow, they still find funding for things like this. I mean, it’s clearly not a profitable venture!

      Like

  8. I listened to the author talking about this book on the Dymocks Facebook page yesterday and I am definitely interested in reading the book now

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    • It’s wonderful for a debut author to get this kind of exposure… so often the hyped books are really nothing special at all (like The Light Between Oceans, quite an interesting book in its way, but not significant like this one is).

      Like

  9. I read ‘the surgeon ..’ a long time ago and loved it. will definitely get this – thanks for the recommendation

    Like

    • There is much more to it than I have covered in this review… I have been very careful to avoid spoilers so that meant I could not cover some issues. I think it’s your kind of book Sara:)

      Like

  10. You aren’t one to gush when it’s unwarranted. Very glad I have a copy of this to indulge in!

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  11. Sounds great, Lisa. I read the Winchester book pre-blog I think, and enjoyed it, but it *was* a very male world. That’s why we have to dismantle and remake things, really, because the structures are designed by men, for men – especially language.

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    • Hmm, I’m more in favour of an inclusive approach. Rather than dismantle things, I like to add, mix, and improve:)
      Take Parliament for instance. If we went through a long, laborious, exhaustive process of rewriting the constitution (and we’ve got one to start with, Britain doesn’t have one at all) it would be years and years, decades even. before we got any change. Whereas (here) the Labor Party a few years ago created Emily’s List, designed to get women into winnable seats in parliaments state and federal. So now we see, especially federally, some wonderful, intelligent, thoughtful and wise women who have displaced the old party hacks, and are a gift to the nation from those far-sighted people who set up Emily’s List in the first place.
      There were/are problems: there were/are also problems when our first MP in a wheelchair rolled into a room full of steps and other barriers: but he was elected, and he is there, and he made changes and continues to remind others that disability ought not to mean exclusion.
      In her book, Damned Whores and God’s Police, Ann Summers talks about the differences between the American and Australian approaches to feminism in the 1970s. We were willing to compromise, take what we could get and then hustle for more, whereas they wanted perfection. In the wash-up, we achieved much more for women than they did.
      Though of course there’s always more to do, as this book shows.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, good point. I think the need to dismantle and start again comes out of frustration at the pace of change – it’s taken so long to get the gains we *have* and the system is such that they could still be swept away overnight. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there’s any easy answer…

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        • We just have to keep pegging away at it, and we have to work together. I think the movement is a bit fractured at the moment, and sometimes loses sight of the main game, but when you talk to young women about the injustices when we were young and witness their disbelief, that’s when you realise how far we’ve come!

          Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi Lisa, I bought it!

    Like

    • Mission accomplished!
      (Let me know what you think of it!!)

      Like

  13. Just came across on my shelves S Winchester’s other book about the OED: The Meaning of Everything. It’s so long since I read it, I’d forgotten about it. Has lots of nice photos and images – must dip into it again

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  14. Oh wow. Surgeon of Crowthorne had completely left my mind… I LOVED that book. Now I’m looking forward to this one.

    Like

    • Oh Kate, you are going to love it. And I predict that it will make an appearance in your annual shortlist prediction post too.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. […] Hill’s recent post (at her blog ANZ Litlovers) on Pip Williams’ new novel The Dictionary of Lost Words was timely. A week or so back I watched the 2019 film ‘The Professor and the Madman’, directed […]

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  16. I’m glad you included the overlooked contribution of women to our lexicon of words. In my post on “The Meaning of Words”, I am guilty of the same.

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  17. Hi Lisa, I can understand why you ‘gushed’. A terrific and delightful read. I will be recommending it to my friends and book club. Parts of It reminded me of Clare Wright’s excellent book’ You Daughters of Freedom’. Do you watch Letters and Numbers on SBS (repeats now)? David Astle is the ‘dictionary expert’ and his explanations of words and phrases are always interesting. I do think women will continue to rise. More girls/women are feeling more empowered, and are increasingly being recognized for their abilities.

    Like

    • Hello Meg, sorry about the delay in replying… I’m glad you liked the book!
      Yes, I have watched Letters and Numbers, it won’t surprise you to know that I’m better at the letters than the numbers/

      Like

  18. It must be just me – half way through I gave up. It felt like the author just thought, “I’ll write a feminist novel and it’ll sell well” and the main character was never fleshed out enough to feel real to me. I’m reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez instead – the title seemed so apt for these times & I’ve been meaning to read if for ages!
    PS: The Parlour Games book arrived safely two days ago and it’s marvellous!

    Like

    • Oh no, say it isn’t so!
      I hope The Parlour Games is a compensation for you:)

      Like

  19. […] you’ve heard of the book (see Lisa’s review), you won’t be surprised to hear that she was inspired by Simon Winchester’s The surgeon of […]

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  20. […] The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (Affirm Press), see my review […]

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  21. […] Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of lost words (on my TBR, Lisa’s review) […]

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