The Dictionary of Lost Words is about the origins and compiling of the first Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The fictional story of the main character Esme is woven through the history and people associated with the OED which was compiled between 1888 and 1928.
"Some words are more important than others, some are not deemed worthy of being in the dictionary. What goes in the dictionary is largely decided by a group of upper middle class white men."
Esme grows up visiting the ‘Scriptorium’ a large shed in the grounds of Dr Murray’s estate just outside Oxford, where her father works as a Lexicographer - Dr Murray is chief editor of The Dictionary. Esme, whose mother died when she was very young, spends long hours under the ‘sorting table’ amusing herself with stories and games while her father and other men work on references and definitions for The Dictionary. One day a slip floats down into her lap, but no one bends down from their seats at the table to claim it. The word was Bondmaid. Esme decides to keep it and hides it away in her apron. She confides to Lizzie the housemaid about her possession, and they stash it in Lizzie’s old trunk under the bed for safekeeping. This is the beginning of Esme’s Dictionary of Lost Words.
Esme soon realises that not all words make it into the Dictionary. If there is not enough information, words get discarded, and discarded words could soon be forgotten.
Esme begins to collect words (or she pinches them) - words that don't get used much; words from poor people at the market whose language is not written down; words considered not worthy, or too obscene for the dictionary. Words used particularly by women were often not represented. Esme’s collection grows bigger.
As Esme grows older, she starts to work in the Scriptorium herself, and does research at the Bodleian Library. She meets Tilda, a flamboyant actress who becomes involved in the Women's Social and Political Union and the suffragette movement, and has a liaison with Tilda’s brother Bill, resulting in a pregnancy. Esme 's pregnancy is largely kept secret and she goes to live with her father’s friend Aunt Ditte for the final months before giving birth to a little girl. Having no desire to marry, or even tell Bill about the birth, she agrees to have the baby adopted. Ditte arranges for her friends Sarah and Philip Brooks to adopt the baby, and soon after they emigrate to South Australia.
Through her visits to the printers, where volumes of the Dictionary are being printed as they are completed, Esme meets the shy and gentle printer Gareth, their relationship grows and eventually they marry. Though grieving for her lost child, Esme is fulfilled by her work, and happy with the companionship of Gareth.
Romance, unrest and tragedy unfold against the backdrop of the suffragette movement and the first World War. What will become of Esme and her Dictionary of Lost Words? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Through the book we get to know and follow the character of Esme through her whole life. It is a moving and interesting story of this time in history, and the making of one of the world's great reference books.
The Dictionary of Lost Words is available to download as an ebook and audio on BorrowBox.