4 Stars

The dictionary of lost words by Pip Williams has been in the top-ten best-sellers list since it’s release. But good sales often don’t correlate to the quality of the book. Fear not, I’ve got you covered. This review will help you decide whether The dictionary of lost words needs to be on your bedside table.


The dictionary of lost words by Pip Williams is set during the ambitious project to build the Oxford English Dictionary. The story follows the life of Esme Nicoll and her search for lost words. Esme is raised by her widower father and spends her childhood beneath his desk at the Scriptorium where he works as an editor on the dictionary. Naturally, Esme grows up among words, definitions, and scholarship.

When Esme finds a discarded word on the floor of the Scriptorium, she undertakes a lifelong project to collect and record words that don’t meet the dictionary’s strict standards. These words, though excluded from the OED, hold depth and meaning to those who use them.


This book is rich with history, relationships and politics. Set during the women’s suffrage movement and the building political tensions of an impending world war, The dictionary of lost words has tremendous amounts of material to mine. Yet, this is an unassuming book. Esme goes about her life’s work beneath the shadow of the great dictionary. Her love of words builds her understanding of the world and her place within it.

Somehow, Esme’s gentle passion for words is deeply stirring. As she seeks ‘women’s words’ and those of others who don’t meet the criteria for the OED, Esme gives voices to women, the working class and the illiterate. She works apart from the large moments of history but is no less subversive or valuable than the grand vision of the OED or the suffragettes. This book shows that battles are fought on many fronts, and they’re all important.


When I began reading The dictionary of lost words, I thought it was going to be a quaint (suggested by the cover) exploration of a young girl’s passion for words. It was, and it was so much more. The dictionary as a device for viewing this tumultuous period of history is clever and elightening, while the characters in this book are beautifully rendered. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Esme and Lizzie (a maid who becomes her surrogate mother).

There is nothing heavy-handed about The dictionary of lost words. Everything from sex, death and the limitless depth of meaning within every word is treated with delicacy and intelligence. I emerged from this book with a sense of warmth, sadness and awe. Williams addresses the silencing of women’s histories by offering a path into the past that has slipped through the cracks.

What did other reviewers think?

Here are a few links to other reviews if you want to dig deeper.:

Better Reading

The Guardian

Sydney Morning Herald


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