Who decided which words went into the first Oxford English Dictionary?

  • Book: The Dictionary of Lost Words
  • Location: Oxford
  • Author: Pip Williams

Review Author: RosieA



The Dictionary Of Lost Words is historical fiction based around the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Beginning in the late 1800s, this is the author’s imagined story from a woman’s point of view.

Esme is raised by her father, a gifted lexicographer. While he works each day on words for the new dictionary, young Esme often sits under the table at the scriptorium. It’s just a garden shed in Oxford, but to Esme and the wordsmiths it is a place of learned reverence.

Each word begins on a slip of paper with its definition. Most words had several definitions, which needed to be verified, then edited, before a final decision made about inclusion or exclusion from the new dictionary.

‘Words are like stories. They change as they are passed from mouth to mouth; their meanings stretch or truncate to fit what needs to be said.’

Author Pip Williams has considered the methods of censorship around the words which made it to the final publication and those which did not, as well as considering how new words enter our vocabulary during our lives. Set against the background of the suffragette movement and World War One, Esme’s fascination with words drove the story forward. As she grew up she collected words that were used in everyday life, particularly those used by or about women, along with regional and slang words. Many of these words never made it into the dictionary, so Esme made her own collection of them so that they weren’t forgotten.

I liked this story, particularly the detailed days in the scriptorium. The slips of paper for each word conjured lovely pictures in my mind of beautiful old papers tied with string and slotted into the pigeon holes which kept them safe. I can only imagine the disaster if there had been a fire. I recommend this to anyone who has an interest in words and their origin or an interest in the creation of The Oxford English Dictionary.

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