The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

‘Words are like stories, don’t you think Mr Sweatman? They change as they are passed from mouth to mouth; their meanings stretch or truncate to fit what needs to be said.’


This is a quite ordinary love story but what sets the book apart is the fact that it is structured around the true events of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Esme is raised by her father who works on the OED is a garden shed called a Scriptorium or Scrippy with Esme sitting under the table as a child. Remaining out of site, she starts to collect words which slip to the floor and are not recovered and places them in a box under Lizzie’s bed. Lizzie is a maid who works for the Murray family, Dr Murray being in charge of the creation of the dictionary.

Eventually Lizzie comes across a word that escapes – bondmaid – and when she reads the definition starts to understand that some words may mean different things to men and women. In real life this word is missing from the dictionary. Esme steals this word, and others, and starts a collection of them. She collects words when she goes to the market and records them with the name of the person who used them – mostly women. When she finally falls in love, her future husband creates a dictionary for her from the words she has collected and presents it to her instead of a ring.

Defining words is not easy, and doing so succinctly is definitely not easy so it is a really nice ending when both Lizzie and Esme find their own definition of ‘bondmaid’.


Female slave. An unmarried female serf or slave. This is the male definition of the word. For the female definition see below;

Bonded for life by love, devotion or obligation.

‘I’ve been a bondmaid to you since you were small, Essymay, and I’ve been glad for every day of it.’

Lizzie Lester. 1915


I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would because of the words and the information about how the OED was written, the love story on its own would not have been enough to keep me reading. But then, I love words.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *