Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 06/1/23 9:23 AM

Book review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams


This was my Book Club`s pick for the month, and it turned out to be a most interesting story, as well as yet another sweet father-daughter story, that of young Esme whose father worked at Oxford on the OED. From the time Esme was a young girl, she would sit under her father`s desk and look at the slips of paper that occasionally came fluttering down to the floor, seeking life`s meaning in words. And it was thus that she got started on collecting a dictionary of lost words. Which, as Esme grew up, transformed from a hobby to an obsession and eventually settled at becoming her chosen career.

But Esme does not sit content, she trains a discerning eye on the linguistic inequality of words and branches out in the most interesting of ways, and starts a dictionary for women, with words like dollymop, suffragist and bondmaid*. The story tracks all that goes into the making of a dictionary, as well as traces Esme`s  personal evolution too, leaving us with the lasting image of a woman of substance, a woman who crosses the milestones of love and loss,  all the while hanging on to her treasure trove of words.

My favourite passage runs thus: Every woman wants to be married, Esme…not all women get the chance. Some are just brought up with too many books and too many ideas, and they can`t settle to it.

*Oh, and did you want to know what `bondmaid` means? Bonded for life by love, devotion or obligation.


a woman and her wordsPip WilliamsThe Dictionary of Lost Words

Sheila Kumar • June 1, 2023

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