Thursday 10 September 2020

The Dictionary of Lost Words | Pip Williams #AUSfiction


Many years ago, the year 2000 to be precise [I know this because], I read and loved Simon Winchester's The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words. Curiously and more sensationally, it was retitled The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary for the US and Canadian market. Either way it was an utterly absorbing story about the chief editor of the first Oxford English Dictionary, John Murray and one his more colourful contributors, a US army surgeon imprisoned in the lunatic asylum in Crowthorne, Berkshire.

At the time I didn't think about how male dominated the story was. What else could one expect from a story written about the period of time from 1879 - 1915 (the years that Murray worked on the OED before his death on the 26th July)?

Thankfully Pip Williams didn't leave it at that!

One of the main consultants and contributors to the OED was historian Edith Thompson (1848-1929), originally brought in because for her knowledge of historical terms. However, by the C and D volumes she was also proofreading and sub-editing, providing thousands of quotations, along with her sister, Elizabeth Thompson.

Edith, or Ditte, is one of the real characters in Williams fictional story of the early days of the OED. Ditte is the godmother of our fictional protagonist, Esme. Williams weaves Esme's childhood habit of sitting under the sorting table in the Scriptorium, while her father worked above, into an explanation for how and why the word 'bondmaid' came to be missing from the first real-life edition of the OED.

I spent ages searching the internet for more information or a photo of Edith Thompson, but except for a few small notes on the OED contributors page, there was nothing but this one slip in her handwriting. 

These postcard-sized slips, devised by Murray, were used to collect, collate and organise all the words that came in from contributors all around the world. Pigeon holes lined the walls of the Scriptorium (the rather fancy name given to the shed at the bottom of his garden where he worked) where all the slips were sorted in alphabetical order. Every word and quotation was checked and double-checked for relevance, historical accuracy and usage. Many words instigated long debates between the three main editors as they disagreed over what was colloquial, crude or jargon. 

Many words were left out of the dictionary. Each word had to have a history of use and written quotes to back it up. If a word was in daily use, but had no written record it did not get used. Therefore the OED became a dictionary of the words that educated, literate men (and a few women) used and wrote throughout English history.

William's story turns the lens back around to the everyday words that women and the working classes used, as we watch Esme gather and collate her own dictionary of the words not included in the OED. 

Given the time frame spanned in this story, the women's suffrage movement and the effects of WWI also feature throughout. We experience both through the eyes of Esme. Both events provide her with even more opportunities to collect words that might otherwise be lost.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a wonderful, rich historical fiction that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I'm grateful that my book club gave me a good reason to finally pick this book up. My only quibble is that I failed to feel a deep emotional bond to any of the characters. I was completely absorbed by the story and the ideas, but I was curiously unmoved by the drama of their daily lives. First person narratives can do that to me sometimes, especially when the narrator is so reserved and quiet.

This book has left me with a thirst to know more about James Murray and his family. All of his eleven children helped work on the dictionary at various times, especially, his fourth daughter, Rosfrith, who spent most of her life working on the dictionary. I'm very grateful to Williams for highlighting the lives and work of the women who were involved in the creation of the OED. 

I'd also be keen to read more about Edith Thompson and her sister. Please let me know if you know of any such books, articles, texts.

Favourite Quote
The Kaurna are the Aboriginal people who called this land home before this great hall was built, and before English was ever spoken in this country. We are on their land, yet we do not speak their language

Favourite or Forget:

  • Definitely a favourite read right now, but I suspect it won't stick in my mind by the time I come to compile my favourite reads of 2020.
  • Why?
  • Not enough emotional impact.
  • But I will ALWAYS be fascinated by the origin story of the OED.
  • The various titbits about how the Scriptorium worked will stay with me a long time.
  • If I ever get to England again, a trip to 78 Banbury Rd, Oxford, will be on the cards.


  1. How lovely to see that slip! I enjoyed Winchester's book, not sure I'd read a fictionalised account but it is tugging at me!

    1. It' s a lovely gentle read Liz, but it can be a little weird mixing real and fictional characters in the same book.

  2. I so want to read this! I loved The Professor and the Madman and have found the OED a little fascinating ever since. :)

  3. I bought this when it first came out. One day I will actually read it!

  4. I came looking to see if you've reviewed any pandemic books lately and found this instead. This whole subject sounds fascinating! Can you imagine the enormity of the job?!
    I do have Professor and the Madman - just haven't read it yet. But now I'm very keen to get to it!

    1. They are both very good reads!

      I finished The Pull of the Stars a few days ago and will probably post in the next few days. I'm also finished Daniel Defoe's The Journal of a Plague Year as well.


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