Having listened to The Meaning of Everything a couple of years ago — a nonfiction book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary — I knew a little of the background of this monumental, decades-long project to catalogue every word in the English language. Pip Williams’ novel The Dictionary of Lost Words takes a fictional perspective on the story through the eyes of young Esme, whose father is one of the scholars working on the project. An only child whose mother is dead, Esme spends her childhood — and, eventually, much of her young womanhood — in the magical world of the “Scriptorium,” watching and eventually participating as the dictionary takes shape. But Esme has a side project of her own — beginning with a “missing” word that she steals from the Scriptorium, she begins collecting words the (for the most part) don’t make it into the dictionary — slang words, swear words, words that are only used by (or used differently by) women, or poor people, or people otherwise marginalized from the official English language.
It’s an interesting take on the story, and Esme and the characters surrounding her provided an engaging fictional way to enter the great story of the dictionary, while also reflecting on the uses of language to unite and divide us.