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Time to lose yourself in words — The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams

by Rosalie Wodecki

Do you remember that story? You know the one. The book you couldn’t put down. Your fear as the final words approached and the last few pages thinned. Remember how you wanted to live there? To exist in the middle of its sentences. To be crushed by its dangers; surrounded by its mercies.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is one of those stories.

Author Pip Williams has done what we, as editors, all want to do. She’s entered the guts of the dictionary and set up camp. She’s unearthed the stories we all suspected existed. And she’s brought us in with her. 

Based on the real early life of the Oxford English Dictionary, Lost Words is a rare treasure. It is breathtaking in its care and curation of words. Woven around this clear love for all sorts of languages is a masterful piece of gripping storytelling. 

Often the story of English is told through the lens of wealthy, white men. In 19th and 20th-century England, they were, in large, the people in charge of words, and of how history was written. This makes it too easy to forget all the other points of view. Pip pushes aside much of this usual pitfall by telling the tale through the life of Esme Nicoll, a young lexicographer-to-be. Esme’s father is a lexicographer who spends his days in a tin shed, compiling entries and accepting or rejecting words for the dictionary. From her earliest days, young Esme is surrounded by piles of papery words, and she too falls deeply in love with them. 

Pip Williams balances the true events of the formation of the Oxford English Dictionary against the injustices of its time. She does it with thought and with care. Of course, I’m a woman admiring another woman’s work. She speaks to me. And this means there are many lives and stories still left untold. 

Lost Words is, more than anything, about unspoken words. The unseemly words. The forgotten meanings. It’s not a tale about the purity of language. It gets into the gussets of the beast. It reveals the flaws, and the grit and grime, alongside the beauty. Pip helps us to see the people whose words were judged unimportant, vulgar or unworthy. 

         GAME
         Prostitution.
         ‘The game is whoring. There are players, like any game, though the dice are always loaded.’

         Mrs Smyth, 1907

By the end of this book, you will know the strength of Pip’s storytelling. You’ll want more. You’ll never want to leave that shed of words. But, more than that, you’ll understand the tragedy of the words left behind. And you too will want to hold onto them; to keep them safe.

This book is one of those stories.

It’s a place to lose yourself. And fall in love. One lost word at a time.

Rosalie Wodecki is an online editor and writer. She specialises in plain English. Find her on twitter with @theloveofwords.
 

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