NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • REESE’S BOOK CLUB PICK • “Delightful . . . [a] captivating and slyly subversive fictional paean to the real women whose work on the Oxford English Dictionary went largely unheralded.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A marvelous fiction about the power of language to elevate or repress.”—Geraldine Brooks, New York Times bestselling author of People of the Book
Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, an Oxford garden shed in which her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip and, learning that the word means “slave girl,” begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.
As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women’s and common folks’ experiences often go unrecorded. And so she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: the Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.
Set during the height of the women’s suffrage movement and with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. Inspired by actual events, author Pip Williams has delved into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell this highly original story. The Dictionary of Lost Words is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.
WINNER OF THE AUSTRALIAN BOOK INDUSTRY AWARD
About the Author
Pip Williams was born in London, grew up in Sydney, and now lives in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia with her family and an assortment of animals. She has spent most of her working life as a social researcher, studying what keeps us well and what helps us thrive, and she is the author of One Italian Summer, a memoir of her family’s travels in search of the good life, which was published in Australia to wide acclaim. Based on her original research in the Oxford English Dictionary archives, The Dictionary of Lost Words is her first novel.
“A beautiful exploration of history and the power of language. For anybody who loves words and celebrates them, this subversive story weaves together love, loss and literature in a perfectly lyrical way.”—Reese Witherspoon (Reese’s Book Club May ’22 Pick)
“This remarkable novel tries to rectify a glaring oversight in the historical accounts of the first Oxford English Dictionary—the contributions of women . . . without whom the English language wouldn’t have evolved as fully and colorfully as it has.”—Boston magazine
“Enchanting, sorrowful, and wonderfully written, the book is a one-of-a-kind celebration of language and its importance in our lives. A must-have.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“In Williams’s exuberant, meticulously researched debut, the daughter of a lexicographer devotes her life to an alternative dictionary. . . . Williams’s feminist take on language will move readers.”—Publishers Weekly
“Williams turns history as we know it on its head in this delightful debut, spotlighting those women and their contributions, using the awe-inspiring power of words themselves to illuminate them.”—Newsweek
“[A] masterfully written, beautiful first novel that tells a fascinating story of language, love and loss.”—Historical 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.”—Manhattan 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.”—Bookreporter
“A lexicographer’s dream of a novel, this is a lovely book to get lost in, an imaginative love letter to dictionaries.”—Booklist
“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.”—Kirkus Reviews
“In the annals of lexicography, no more imaginative, delightful, charming, and clever book has yet been written.”—Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of 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, author of Schindler’s List
“What a compelling, fresh look at historical women! This marvelous exploration into the ways in which spoken and written language impact us is a delight and an education.”—Marie Benedict, author of The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
“This charming, inventive, and utterly irresistible novel is the story we all need right now. Words have never mattered more, as Pip Williams illuminates in her unforgettable debut.”—Susan Wiggs, author of The Lost and Found Bookshop