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The Dictionary of Lost Words - a review

By Trevor Moore The Dictionary of Lost Words

Pip Williams, Affirm Press, 2020, ISBN 9-781-9259-7259-7, 423pp

My injunction that no one should enter the hallowed portals of a book shop without buying at least two books has fallen on fertile ground. My pal Macman, who I know you listen to on 2EARFM every Wednesday at 1600, called me excitedly the other day as he was walking out of Moruya Books. He had bought, as he knew I would be pleased to note, two books. One was a slim volume called Cult Musicians and the other was the subject of this review, The Dictionary of Lost Words. Now, you may think that I borrowed Macman’s copy of this book and used his copy for my review. But my Mother instilled in me that old aphorism that you should “neither a lender nor a borrower be”, an aphorism, I may say, to which I regularly fail to adhere. I decided to look in on Janice, the esteemed proprietor of Moruya Books, where I followed Macman’s example and acquired my own copy of The Dictionary of Lost Words. And I am glad I did.

Some years ago, I had read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne which tells the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Pip Williams’ story is based on the story of the OED, a story that started in 1857 when the Unregistered Words Committee of the Philological Society of London called for a new English dictionary. At the time the dictionary most used was Samuel Johnson's then one-hundred-year-old Dictionary of the English Language. It was in that 1755 dictionary that Johnson famously defined a lexicographer as “a harmless drudge”. Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words is the story of one such, though fictional, drudge. Her name is Esme and we follow her life from 1886 to 1915 and then we have a brief glimpse of her in 1928 as the story moves, albeit briefly but satisfyingly, to South Australia.

There are many books about the English Language and many of them grace my bookshelves. I can see, as I write, Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Gower’s Plain Words (1948), Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English (2003) and David Crystal’s The English Language : A Guided Tour of the Language. You will notice immediately that these are all by men. While Lynne Truss’ 2003 book Eats, Shoots & Leaves redresses the balance somewhat, philology and lexicography, like so many human endeavours, have been the province of men. At least, that is what history used to tell us. Pip Williams, I suspect, would have none of it.

The central premise of the book is the Orwellian observation that not all words are created equal. And some words are “women’s words” and it is those, and other vulgar (to use the then contemporary word) words that do not make it into the dictionary at all. At the end of the book our heroine tells a fusty old functionary at the Bodleian Library: “You are not the arbiter of knowledge, sir. You are its librarian. It is not for you to judge the importance of these words, simply to allow others to do so.”

Many of the characters in her novel are based on real people and Williams reproduces a picture of the key people on the propenultimate (sic see note at end) and it is interesting to note that of the 6 people pictured, 2 are women. Esme, our heroine, is the motherless daughter of a man working with the OED team and she spends much of her early years in the Scriptorium, where the OED is developed. As time goes on her capabilities are recognised and she becomes an assistant on the team, researching words and quotations and undertaking other work. Pip Williams has woven a fictional narrative around the events that led to the dictionary and the result is an interesting and moving story that romps along and keeps you engaged. The novel is well-researched; I tried to catch its author out. On page 341, in a chapter headed “May 1915” she refers to the song By The Light Of The Silvery Moon which I was convinced was a 1920s song. I have the sheet music; it was published in 1909. On the other hand, and I cannot say if this is simply a proofing error, she twice uses the verb “to peddle” (on pages 202 and 262) incorrectly when she means “to pedal”. For an author posing as a lexicographer, I cannot let that pass.

But for that minor transgression the author is to be forgiven because I loved this book. The characters are well drawn, and the historical contexts of the suffragette movement and the Great War are woven into the narrative. The heroine is likeable and realistic. In one way it all turns out alright but in another way it doesn’t. But as I finished the book, I found myself thinking about the legacy that we all leave when we finally shuffle of this mortal coil. Whether large or small, we all leave a legacy and we would do well to think about that.

There are the usual enthusiastic quotes at the start of this book and on looking back at them, I have to say that I agree with them all. And I cannot often say that. This is Pip Williams’ first book and I shall be looking forward to her second. I cannot recommend it highly enough and if Janice at Moruya Books has no more copies then I am sure that she can order them in a trice.

Buy it. Read it.

Post-script: When I was 12 or 13, I had an English master called Hugh Dent. We called him, with all the imagination that small boys can muster, Screwy Dent. I suppose he is now long dead. He taught Latin and well as English and he introduced us to the word “prepropenultimate” which is a reference to the fourth to last in a list. Hence the word “pro penultimate” that I have used above is a reference to the third from last.

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