The Dictionary of Lost Words

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What to expect

Brought to you by Penguin.

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, 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 relating 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.

© Pip Williams 2021 (P) Penguin Audio 2021

Critics Review

  • A brilliant book about women and words – tender, moving and profound

    Jacqueline Wilson
  • An extraordinary, charming novel… Williams pins a whole, rich life to the page

    The Times
  • Poignant, perfectly paced… a beautifully nuanced work

    Mail on Sunday
  • I absolutely loved this book! Thought-provoking, touching and subtly romantic; I finished it in tears

    Katie Fforde
  • Williams’s satisfying novel animates a fascinating history and imbues it with a feminist slant, asking how words mean different things to men and women

    Sunday Times

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