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Summary

Brought to you by Penguin.

In 1901, the word bondmaid was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, Esme spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of lexicographers are gathering words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary.

Esme's place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day, she sees a slip containing the word bondmaid flutter to the floor unclaimed. Esme seizes the word and hides it in an old wooden trunk that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.

Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women's experiences often go unrecorded. She begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

Set when the women's suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It's a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape our experience of the world.

©2020 Pip Williams (P)2020 Penguin Audio

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Beautifully crafted story. Loved it.

I have seen this reviewed in the press as a gentle story but I think that is an inaccurate description for a book about dictionaries, the importance of words and how we use them. This is a deeply satisfying book which explores words at all sorts of levels, using an intriguing cast of characters to illuminate a world of scholarship, gender bias and the quest for women’s suffrage.

During the early days of the OED it is discovered that the word bondmaid is missing from the first volume of the first edition. A young girl, Esme , daughter of one of the lexicographers, knows all about the whereabouts of the missing word and discusses the meaning of bondmaid with the housemaid Lizzie, who she calls a friend. This is the start of a world of discovery for Esme; along the way she realises that life is very different for men and women and that everyday words can mean different things to different people. Women’s words and words of common folk are often ignored by the people with the power to decide their definition and usage. With the help of Lizzie, friends and acquaintances, Esme compiles a dictionary of women’s words while working alongside the men responsible for the creation and production of the OED.

This is a multi-layered book full of careful research and a rich tapestry of characters. The author has included very interesting historical detail as an afterword and I was delighted to learn that the book is based on a real event. Lovely narration too.

All in all, a real treat and a book that I have already recommended to friends.