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The Dictionary of Lost Words - Book Review

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by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published May 11th 2020
A fantastic novel for everyone
I am a writer.

As well as my output here at WeekendNotes, I also write irregularly on professional wrestling, and slightly less irregularly on writing at the Horror Tree website. More than that, I have had over 100 publications of short stories, poems and essays, as well as two books, and contracts signed for more. I don't self-publish; a publisher/editor has to look at my stuff and think it is worth publishing.

The reason I put this here is not self-aggrandisement, but to show that words are my life. I need words to live. Writing to me is as natural as breathing. If I don't write, I feel I go a little crazy. I studied Latin at high school and that gave me a love of the language and an interest in etymology. I also read a lot (as Stephen King said in the best book I have found on writing, On Writing: "Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." and "The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor."). In fact, I have done a few book reviews here at WeekendNotes, when a book really strikes something in me. I read and I write. That's life.

But I think I take words for granted. If I don't know a word, I like to look at its bases to get to the truth of it and learn its definition, use it in a story or two, add it to my personal word bank. I also get accustomed to which words upset people, and the reason for that upset being there. Words can have a strange power that not everyone understands, but it is there.

How did we get to the words we have today? In 2016 I read a book called The Meaning Of Everything by Simon Winchester. It was simply Winchester telling how the Oxford English Dictionary's first edition came to be. Interesting and fascinating, but just another non-fiction book. Again, something you don't really think about.

That rather long-winded (sorry) introduction brings me to:
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (Affirm Press, 2020).

This is not the sort of book I normally read. It was given to me by Kathy and Geoff as an Easter gift. But the mail being what it is, I didn't get it until the start of May. Between university essays, edits for a publisher, and writing columns, I sat down to read it. It might not be what I normally read (and far from what I write), but this book suckered me in. This is a very, very good book.

This is a beautiful book.

The same beginnings of the Oxford English Dictionary that Winchester described, Williams brings to life. Through the daughter of one of the workers on the Dictionary, we see the tome grow as the world changes. But it is so much more than that.

This brings me to the sort of book it is, because I am not sure what sort of story this wants to be. Is it a coming of age story? A story of the Women's Suffrage Movement in the UK? A life story? A woman making her way in a man's world when that was almost unheard of? A tale of the Patriarchal Society dominating everything including language and how the only way to subvert this was to work from inside? All of these? None of these? I have no idea… even now that I've finished it, I have no idea.

In her Author's Note at the end of the book, Williams makes the valid point that words and their meanings came from a male society. The editors were male, those who decided what was what were male, and males were the ones who dictated what definitions were to be used. Our entire English language as we know it was based on a patriarchal model of men in charge. More than just men, white, educated men living in Victorian London.

Williams does not come out in the story and say this. No – she tells the story of Esme finding the words not in the Dictionary by listening to people, by rescuing discarded meanings, by asking questions and listening to answers. Esme starts life as a child whose mother has died, and whose hand is horrifically scarred by a fire accident. She goes to a horrendous boarding school, there are actors, a child, South Australia is mentioned, death, marriage… No spoilers, but this was a life that was surprisingly full. It was not a life of supreme greatness, but a life of great things. Esme came across as a person, a real flesh and blood person, a woman in a changing world. She might not have been as upfront as the Pankhursts of her day, but she did something that was just as important – she saved the roots of language and saw to it that language was not just male-centric.

The book is so amazingly well written. We know what is going on with Esme. We know life in England through her eyes and her very small part of the world, through her friends and the people she meets. Esme might not have been a real person, but it was necessary to invent her and place her amongst the real people who populate this novel in order to get the real feel of time and place.

That is not to say it is a perfect book. There are some sections that felt glossed over and some that were focused on without much relevance later on. The worst to me was the truck. It was so anti-climactic, and off-screen, and that felt like we were robbed. We came to know this person and… no. Spoilers. The ending felt a little preachy as well.

But those are minor quibbles. This is a stunning book. Words are more than letters on a page. They can mean more than what it says in a dictionary. This book goes a long way to showing just what they can be, and how important they really are.

And she made this old man feel a throat-lump more than once.

I heartily recommend this book. To who? Well, everyone, I think. This is a character study, but there are two characters being studied – Esme Nicoll (later Owen), and the English Language. Both characters come to life on the pages of this fine book. You will not be disappointed.
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Your Comment
It's on my table to read next. I'm also an amateur writer/poet with a love of words and language and when I saw this book, knew it's something I had to have, even though I usually only read non fiction books.
by amand (score: 1|40) 405 days ago
Thanks Steve. It is definitely on my reading list - literally.
by May Cross (score: 3|7908) 406 days ago
Really interesting review Steven.Appreciate your input into our next Bookclub discussion.
by Jenny Rossiter (score: 3|4206) 101 days ago
Thanks Steve, I love words too so picked this up with great interest. I am reading it currently and really enjoying it. x Marina
by Marina Marangos (score: 2|982) 405 days ago
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