Sunday, April 18, 2021

Women in the margins: Pip Williams' The Dictionary of Lost Words

Some historical novels forever change the way you think about their subjects. Pip Williams’ debut novel is one of these.

Moving from the late Victorian period through the suffrage movement, World War I, and after, The Dictionary of Lost Words examines with a questioning eye the painstaking process involved in producing the Oxford English Dictionary. Scholars are so used to regarding this masterwork as an authoritative reference for meanings and etymologies that it’s easy to forget that, as a product of human labor, its contents reflected the fallibility and biases of its compilers and its era.

The narrator, Esme Nicoll, is the daughter of one of the OED’s lexicographers. Her mother had died in childbirth, so Esme’s father, Harry, is obliged to bring her with him to his office in Oxford. As Harry and his male colleagues collect words, definitions, and quotes on slips of paper, young Esme spends her days concealed under their worktables in the Scriptorium (a building resembling a garden shed) near the house of the dictionary’s principal editor, James Murray.

When one slip floats down to her on the floor, forgotten, she claims it, reads the word – “bondmaid” – and learns what it means. (This word really did slip through the cracks.) Thus begins Esme’s private collection of words omitted from the dictionary. She becomes attuned to the reasons that words are left out: for example, if they’re quoted only in books written by women (and considered of lower importance), or if they have the potential to offend (such as those referring to female body parts). Slang only spoken aloud doesn’t get included, either.

As she grows up, Esme takes it upon herself to gather as many of these “lost words” as possible, using the local community of women as her informants. These include the Murrays’ illiterate maid, Lizzie, who loves her like a younger sister, and Mabel O’Shaughnessy, a poor, shabbily dressed woman with a raunchy vocabulary who has a stall at the Covered Market. These women, terrific characters both, have their own hard-earned wisdom. Who’s to say that their words aren’t worth recording?

Esme’s journey is not just an intellectual exercise but also an emotional one, related with deep empathy by the author. She soaks up life along with the words describing it, feeling their joys and many sorrows. Meanwhile, work on the OED continues, and Esme yearns to be a full contributor. Pip Williams also manages to create an overtly feminine-centered narrative without stereotyping its men. Harry Nicoll obviously loves his daughter, encourages her curiosity, and supports her in times of strife. Sometimes the story is almost too sad to bear, but there’s beauty within the melancholy, and hope shines through at the end.

Esme is a fictional character, but her presence in this historically based story isn’t too much of an imaginative stretch. Women did play roles in the OED’s creation, although they didn’t receive proper acknowledgment. In The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams lifts them out of the margins of the OED and gives them, and their words, the recognition they deserve.

If you’ve read this far, and are curious to learn more, please jump over to the author’s website to read her blog post on the real history, Reflecting on the work of women in compiling the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is published by Ballantine this month in the US. In Australia, where it became a bestseller, the publisher is Affirm Press. I read it from a NetGalley copy.

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