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Book DetailsISBN: 9781925972597
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Book Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams - Reviewed by CloggieA (01 May 2020)
5 stars “Some words stretched so far back in time that our modern understanding of them was nothing more than an echo of the original, a distortion. I used to think it was the other way around, that the misshapen words of the past were clumsy drafts of what they would become; that the words formed on our tongues, in our time were true and complete. But everything that comes after that first utterance is a corruption.”
The Dictionary of Lost Words is the first novel by English-born Australian author, Pip Williams. Ever since she was a little girl, sitting under the sorting table at her Da’s feet, in the loftily-titled Scriptorium (the old iron shed lined with pigeonholes in the back garden of Sunnyside), Esme has loved words.
Under the direction of the editor, Dr James Murray, and with several other assistant lexicographers, her Da, Henry Nicoll was compiling a dictionary: the Oxford English Dictionary. The words, their meanings and their use in quotes came on slips of paper, to be sorted and debated (sometimes quite vociferously) and included or rejected.
“Whenever we came across a word I didn’t know, he would read the quotation it came with and help me work out what it meant. If I asked the right questions, he would try to find the book the quotation came from and read me more. It was like a treasure hunt, and sometimes I struck gold.”
The slips might be discarded, the word rejected if the definition was incomplete, or a duplicate. Esme hated the idea that words would be lost. And sometimes slips were dropped. Esme began to save these words. They would go into her Dictionary of Lost Words.
This unusual, inquisitive little girl wasn’t going to fit the middle-class wife-and-mother mould. At school: “If all the children at St Barnabas were a single word, most would be examples of the main definition. But I’d be some rarely used sense, one that’s spelled strangely. One that’s no use to anyone.” Esme was happiest when working in the Scriptorium.
Eventually, “I had a desk and would be given tasks… I would serve the words as they served the words.” She later came to realise that words would not be included for various reasons, but the one that most troubled her was that the word did not appear in print, even if it was commonly used.
“I’m sure that there are plenty of wonderful words flying around that have never been written on a slip of paper. I want to record them. … Because I think they are just as important as the words Dr Murray and Da collect. … I think sometimes the proper words mustn’t be quite right, and so people make new words up, or use old words differently.”
But it was when she was exposed to a charismatic suffragette that she began to notice how the process was skewed against women, the poor and the disenfranchised. And if motherless Esme wasn’t brave enough to take their type of militant action, her female mentor could suggest a less blatant way.
Williams populates her novel with a marvellous cast of characters: quirky, diligent, loyal, nasty, loving and wise, they’re all there, and emotional investment in Esme and her friends is difficult to resist. She deftly demonstrates the power of words: sometimes, just one will bring a lump to the throat, a tear to the eye.
Her extensive research is clear from every page: so much interesting information, both historical and philological, is woven into this wonderful tale. Especially fascinating to any lover of words is the process of making a new dictionary, illustrating the reason it takes so long. Laugh, cry and incidentally, learn a lot in this brilliant debut. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Affirm Press.
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