Sunday, February 19, 2023

words lost and found

Some thoughts on

The dictionary of lost words
Pip Williams
Vintage Paperback 2022

Shortly after reading and reviewing The looking-glass house, I spotted this paperback at The Works and was attracted to the idiosyncratic title and the map of Victorian Oxford included at the front. Always fun to wander the streets of Victorian Oxford in fiction, as it is instantly recognisable but also interestingly different.

The focus of the book is a place I actually cycled and walked past many times. Of course I have read the blue plaque on the Banbury Road which enlightens us that the first Oxford English Dictionary was born in a garden shed on this site. It was the shed grandiosely named the “Scriptorium” in the garden of the first editor, James Murray, where staff collected words and crafted definitions for decades.

The story is well documented and reported, of course, but what Pip Williams does is to analyse how the words and definitions were biased by the fact that all editors on site were men of a very similar social background. To this end, she introduces a fictional girl, Esme, growing up in the circle and becoming a lexicographer herself, and uses her to interrogate why words such as bondmaid and cunt aren’t included in the dictionary. Funnily enough the latter just got underlined in red as isn’t in the dictionary of my word processing software either – looks like the Victorian times never ended.

The novel spans the story of Esme’s entire life, which is heartwarming throughout. In spite of the various troubles in the world (including the Great War and the suffragists movement) and in her life, the warm glow never fades. There is no real evil in her world, which one could perhaps criticise as naïve, but I think it reflects in a way the ivory tower perspective that you get when you’re fully immersed in a major academic project such as the dictionary. Implausibly vast and extremely slow moving, this kind of work will only have been tolerated by people who cared about it to an obsessive degree, so the normal rules of competitive capitalism wouldn’t apply.

There is also something Carrollean in the way Esme explores the weird and wonderful worlds of Oxford and lexicography. Born in the early 1880s, fictional Esme is a generation younger than real life Alice Liddell, so it makes sense to read this after The looking-glass house.

So, it may be a fairy tale for adults, but I would highly recommend it as an escape from today’s harsh reality and news cycle. Also as an introduction to Oxford – the place hasn’t changed all that much, even the map is still useful today.


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