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Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, Esme spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of lexicographers are gathering words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary.
Esme's place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day, she sees a slip containing the word bondmaid flutter to the floor, unclaimed. Esme seizes the word and hides it in an old wooden trunk that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.
Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings related to women's experiences often go unrecorded. She begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.
Set when the women's suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It's a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape our experience of the world.
'Inspired by a wisp of a fact – a single word accidentally omitted from the Oxford English Dictionary – Pip Williams has spun a marvelous fiction about the power of language to elevate or repress. This is a novel that brings light not only lost words, but the lost stories of women's lives. It is at once timely and timeless.' Geraldine Brooks
'In the annals of lexicography, no more imaginative, delightful, charming and clever book has yet been written. And if by writing it Pip Williams has gently rapped my knuckles for wrongly supposing that only white English men led the effort to corral and codify our language, then I happily accept the scolding. Her wonderfully constructed story has helped entirely change my mind.' Simon Winchester, author of The Surgeon of Crowthorne: a tale of murder, madness and the Oxford English Dictionary
'What a novel of words, their adventure and their capacity to define and, above all, challenge the world. There will not be this year a more original novel published. I just know it' Thomas Keneally