Until I read Pip William’s novel, “The Dictionary of Lost Words”, I hadn’t questioned how the first dictionaries were compiled. I learned that the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was assembled between the years of 1884 and 1928.
Although the story is fiction, many of the characters are real including James Murray, who built a Scriptorium in his yard. He supervised a number of lexicographers to collect words and definitions sent in by a vast range of volunteers.
In the story, Esme, whose widowed father was one of those lexicographers, grows up playing beneath the sorting table, watching and listening. She develops a fascination with words and especially those words that are not included in the dictionary. She begins to secretly steal those words and store them in a suitcase. As she grows, she realizes that most of the discarded words are words pertaining to women and poor people.
The story follows Esme’s life and she grows up with the dictionary, year by year. Eventually, she also dedicates her life to working in the Scriptorium, but also goes out into the poorer areas of the city and gather words from poor women.
This was a well researched, well written story that piqued my curiosity and left me wanting to learn more about words that are included in and discarded from the dictionary.