The Dictionary of Lost Words

The cover of a book which says 'The Dictionary of Lost Words - Pip Williams'

Who decides which words go in the Dictionary? Which words are left out? 

I just finished reading The Dictionary of Lost Words, a historical novel by Adelaide author Pip Williams. The novel takes us back to Oxford in the early 1900s, when the Oxford English Dictionary was first compiled in a garden shed. Esme, a young woman, becomes curious about the words that stay in and out of the dictionary. She begins collecting words that hold importance to her life, even if they aren't considered important by the men in charge of the Dictionary. 

I started reading this book when I was feeling unsettled and stressed. This book was an escape: it transported me a century back in time and I became absorbed in Esme's life. The book weaves moments of personal suffering, warmth and loss into historical events including the writing of the Dictionary, the women's suffrage movement and the first world war. 

One of my favourite things about this book is how it explores both overt and subtle injustices towards women. There are the obvious things: the moral double standards, the lower rates of pay, the exclusion from politics. But the novel also asks: how have women been disempowered by the gatekeeping of language? Why is a word less important if it's not written by a male scholar? 

I love historical fiction because it helps me to imagine myself in history. Sadly, most recorded history is written by men and largely ignores the experiences of women. When we read between the lines and imagine those stories which remain untold, we can better understand the lives of our grandmothers, great-grandmothers and other ancestors. 

I loved this book for helping me to do that. 

Tagged in books, Review, history, What messes with your head