The Dictionary of Lost Words


Pip Williams' 2020 debut novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, has a wonderful premise. Taking the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary as its background, Williams explores a parallel collection of words -- women's words -- overlooked or censored by the male academics in charge of building their collection. Literally and figuratively, Esme gathers her own volume of words, picking up lost and discarded words from under the table where the scholars work, listening in the streets and markets, treasuring the words of the suffragettes she befriends.


Women bonded by a shared political goal; comrades.

'Sisters, thank you for joining the fight.'    

                                                    Tilda Taylor, 1906

It's a fascinating idea to build a novel around. I'm sure I've read somewhere (though I can't track it down) about some countries or cultures where women do have a complete and separate parallel language -- maybe that's true, maybe it isn't. But it's definitely true, or was true a hundred years ago, that women use language differently, that they have their own experiences of life that demand their own words to describe them.

The process of compiling the dictionary turned out to be a much bigger project than anyone anticipated when it was begun, which means that the story of Esme's life, which runs alongside the gestation of the dictionary, moves quite slowly, though it's a thought-provoking and enjoyable journey. (I definitely enjoyed this novel a lot more than The Surgeon of Crowthorne, perhaps the most famous book about the making of the Oxford dictionary but one I found too long and unexpectedly dull.)


  1. I enjoyed this book very much, Kate. "Women's language"...a fascinating idea. On another tack, in these really very strange times we live in, there are instances where a woman could feel herself being literally written out of language in the attempt to be kind and inclusive. Chest milk? Chest feeding? I read an article last week on the incidence of cesareans in childbirth which talked about the rates of death among parents and babies. I was initially really confused...parents? mums and dads? how?...until I realised that the writer meant 'mother'. Or woman. IN an Age article titled 'Inclusive language 'risks dehumanising women' by Wendy Tuohy,I read that some suggestions for inclusive language are formulations (for a birthing woman)such as birth giver,birth persons, birthing bodies, birthers, labourers...

  2. It's such a fraught area, isn't it! I totally understand the impulse to be inclusive but there are absurdities in writing out the realities of (most) women's bodies, too. I don't know what the answer is, maybe the pendulum has to over-swing before it settles back to a new position. In fact even as I was writing this post, I had to stop and think, am I excluding anyone by writing about 'women's bodies' and 'women's experiences'? But maybe it's good to at least stop and think about it!

  3. There is a tribe that uses separate words - men and women use different words for things. Children use the womens' words until about the age of ten after which boys use the mens' words. I can't remember their name, but there was a discussion about it on QI (UK geeky knowledge quiz/discussion show) only the other week which is why it's fresh in my mind. Also, I'm always interested that languages are often referred to as peoples' 'mother tongue' whereas land can be 'fatherland'. Languages are passed down from mother to child in the home, even when the language spoken outside the home may be different.

  4. That's so interesting Ann -- I did a desultory google search but couldn't pin it down, trust QI to be on top of it! Mother tongue vs fatherland: there is a whole thesis in that!