Top positive review
Love, lexicography, loss: A voice not demanding we see the truth of our language, but whispering it
Reviewed in Australia on 30 April 2020
Warning: Some spoiler alerts below:
I didn't think it would be possible to enjoy (and learn from) a better book on lexicography than Winchester's 'The Surgeon of Crowthorne': I was wrong.
The Dictionary of Lost Words is a stately walk through Victorian England's values, from a woman's point of view, but always with the gentle overlay of the Oxford English Dictionary's lexicography. The facts of the task of compiling the OED were fascinating, but more-so the philosophical questions central to this book - What defines 'validity' in a word? Must it have been written down? Does a tabloid newspaper coining a new word, constitute its having been 'written down'? Is slang acceptable? Is slang only acceptable after it's been in use for a time? Should profanities be included, and if not, why not? The protagonist, Esme has to address these questions, then in a profoundly chauvinistic society, she has to present and argue her case. Her 'lost words' are the oral vocabularies of women. Not a topic many men in Victorian England were interested in.
Pip Williams' portrayal of English as a changing language, and her recognition of its inbuilt sexism is fascinating. As Esme observes; Nearly every (polite) term for a woman (such as Miss, Mrs, maiden, harlot) informs the hearer of the virginity-status of the woman concerned... and none of the male terms do equally. Even the derogatory ones such as 'git' do not allude to a man's virginity status.
Then there are the words for women, which have no male equivalent - 'scold'. Blame encompassed in just one word.
As in real life, nothing happens quickly and with Esme's accidental death, some actions are left to those who come after. This may disappoint those who like all the loose ends of a story tied up before the final page. But these characters, for the most part, are based on real individuals.
Finally this is a love story - typical of the age. Love finally declared... too late, bound by the constraints of the society (which impose on Esme a belief she is not worthy of happiness in marriage), and ended too soon by the horrohs of WWI.
A wonderful book. The best I have read for years.
I don't know who I wish I could have dinner with more.... Pip Williams, or Esme.