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The Dictionary of Lost Words (2020)

por Pip Williams

Séries: OUP Stories (1)

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2,5761145,634 (3.97)212
"In 1901, the word 'Bondmaid' was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it. Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the 'Scriptorium', a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme's place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word 'bondmaid' flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case 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 relating to women's experiences often go unrecorded. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words."--Publisher.… (mais)
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Research have proven, over and over again, that while culture shapes language, language also shapes culture. Dominant populations may not be able to gatekeep the vocabulary that is employed by marginalized populations (women, the poor), but they do get to gatekeep which words end up officially acknowledged in dictionaries, thus shaping that society's acknowledged reality.

This is the understanding that gradually dawns on the protagonist of the novel, Esme, who finds employment in the workshop/scriptorium where the Oxford English Dictionary is being composed. As her interest converges on specific categories of words most likely to be excluded - slang, vulgar language, language related to female experiences/desires - her own life experiences conspire to underscore the importance and relevancy of these words.

Other themes: how dictionaries fail to acknowledge how the connotations of words (ex: sisters, sufferage, f---) evolve over time; and language's role in defining history (a la "history is written by the victors").

Reviews and blurbs suggest that this novel is some sort of daring celebration of feminism. I'm not sure there's anything particularly daring here. The book feels fairly authentic in its incorporation of women representing both ends of the spectrum of female experience, from exploited prostitutes to well-respected female scholars. If anything, the book draws attention to the gradual empowerment of women that has occurred over time, their transition from the maidens/scolds/dollymops of the past (captured in the quotes that are used to source the dictionary) to women unafraid to demand their rights and claim their sexuality. One emerges with the impression that while the English Oxford Dictionary may be flawed, and females may continue to experience sexism, neither of these are as excessive as they might be.

One ding: while it's cool that this story is based on actual events, this does have the inevitable impact of limiting the author's flexibility and creativity. The characters and events that are based on reality are definitely not as dramatic or interesting as the fictionalized bits. Don't get me wrong: there's enough plot/character development to keep things interesting, but this is mostly a book about ideas rather than people - an exploration of the power of vocabulary to not just define but shape reality. ( )
  Dorritt | Feb 22, 2024 |
As much as I enjoyed this novel as a work of fiction, I enjoyed the shorter Author’s Note equally, beginning with the first paragraph, which poses two questions: “Do words mean different things to men and women? And if they do, is it possible that we have lost something in the process of defining them?” Instinctively, my answer is yes, although Ms. Williams goes beyond this and shows some of the words omitted are clearly class based, not just gender based. This historical fiction is based on the actual events of the compiling of the first Oxford English Dictionary (my favorite book!), which was accomplished first in pieces, beginning in the Victorian era and ending in the period between the two World Wars, under the direction of primary editor Dr. James Murray, who is a prominent figure in this novel. The protagonist, Esme Nicholls, is the motherless child of one of the lexicographers working with Dr. Murray. The story begins in 1887, when Esme is a small girl who sits under the sorting table where her father and the other philologists works, sorting through submissions from other philologists and lexicographers, nearly thirty years into the work on the first edition, which was published in volumes by letter or group of letters until it was completed in 1928 – and the second edition was begun. But Esme learns that not all words that are in use are included in the dictionary, and she begins collecting words that are left out and eventually complied into a printed book as an engagement present, in lieu of a ring, from the man she eventually marries in her 30s. As Ms. Williams observes in the prologue: Some words are more important than others . . . . But it took me a long time to understand why.” And the why is the lack of voice of those who also used words were but were not consulted because they were deemed by the males who controlled the dictionary to be unimportant. ( )
  bschweiger | Feb 4, 2024 |
As a child from time to time our extended family, including grandparents, uncles and aunts, would gather around the oval table, put the scrabble-clone board on a cake icing turntable, and battle it out to maximise the score from our trays of letters. I soon discovered that there were acceptable and unacceptable words, referring to our Concise Oxford dictionary when disputes arose. I never really wondered who the arbiter of acceptability was, or how words came to appear in the dictionary at all. I love words, and their stories, and as an adult have enjoyed Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne, and The Meaning of Everything. I discovered the lengthy and arcane process of word identification, selection, and arbitration.
In The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams explores the idea that process of dictionary word selection reveals much about the cultural environment of the word selectors, and their concept of respectability.
Esme Nicol, daughter of a lexicographer, grows up in the world of dictionary building, but also through the struggle of the Great War, and the women’s suffrage movement. She discovers that the struggle for identity and visibility in society, is reflected in the world of lexicography.
I found this story well-written, engaging, thought-provoking and poignant. ( )
  rodneyvc | Feb 3, 2024 |
A very interesting account based on facts of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. It follows a fictional character who grew up in the Scriptorium where the dictionary was words were being selected and the part she played in saving words that were lost, unused or deemed not appropriate to be included. Kirkus: The Herculean efforts required to assemble the Oxford English Dictionary are retold, this time from a fictionalized, distaff point of view, in Williams? debut novel.Esme Nicoll, the motherless young daughter of a lexicographer working in the Scriptoriumin reality, a garden shed in Oxford where a team led by James Murray, one of the OED?s editors, toiled¥accompanies her father to work frequently. The rigor and passion with which the project is managed is apparent to the sensitive and curious Esme, as is the fact that the editorial team of men labors under the influence of Victorian-era mores. Esme begins a clandestine operation to rescue words which have been overlooked or intentionally omitted from the epic dictionary. Her childhood undertaking becomes a lifelong endeavor, and her efforts to validate the words which flew under the (not yet invented) radar of the OED gatekeepers gain traction at the same time the women?s suffrage movement fructifies in England. The looming specter of World War I lends tension to Esme?s personal saga while a disparate cast of secondary characters adds pathos and depth. Underlying this panoramic account are lexicographical and philosophical interrogatives: Who owns language, does language reflect or affect, who chooses what is appropriate, why is one meaning worthier than another, what happens when a word mutates in meaning? (For example, the talismanic word first salvaged by Esme, bondmaid, pops up with capricious irregularity and amorphous meaning throughout the lengthy narrative.) Williams provides readers with detailed background and biographical information pointing to extensive research about the OED and its editors, many of whom appear as characters in Esme?s life. The result is a satisfying amalgam of truth and historical fiction.Who tells your story? Williams illuminates why women needed to be in the room where, and when, it?s written.
  bentstoker | Jan 26, 2024 |
Beautiful story about words, what they mean, how they change, and how they change us. I loved this book from the moment I picked it up. The characters were richly portrayed, the story was interesting and well detailed, thought out, and fabulously written. Cannot say enough good things about this author -- and the narrator. ( )
  ldyluck | Jan 6, 2024 |
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[A] masterfully written, beautiful first novel that tells a fascinating story of language, love and loss.
adicionada por Dariah | editarHistorical Novel Society
 
The writing is glorious; I dog-eared many pages as I read, marking passages that helped me see words in a new way.
adicionada por Dariah | editarManhattan Book Review (starred review)
 
The novel you’ve been waiting for without even realizing it . . . Williams will convince you of a word’s importance in a most lovely and charismatic story.
adicionada por Dariah | editarBookreporter
 
Williams provides readers with detailed background and biographical information pointing to extensive research about the [Oxford English Dictionary] and its editors, many of whom appear as characters in Esme’s life. The result is a satisfying amalgam of truth and historical fiction.
adicionada por Dariah | editarKirkus Reviews
 
A lexicographer’s dream of a novel, this is a lovely book to get lost in, an imaginative love letter to dictionaries.
adicionada por Dariah | editarBooklist
 

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"In 1901, the word 'Bondmaid' was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it. Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the 'Scriptorium', a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme's place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word 'bondmaid' flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case 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 relating to women's experiences often go unrecorded. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words."--Publisher.

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