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The Dictionary of Lost Words

35/25 | Started 12.11.21 • Finished 12.30.21 | 4 stars

I really enjoyed our December book club pick! It follows Esme, a girl who grows up during the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, with her father as one of the lexicographers working on it. Hers is a life of significant ups and downs, including her progress up the ranks of the lexicographers and periods of severe depression.

"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."

The premise behind the lost words is that the dictionary project was largely run for men, by men, with many men contributing through citations of works by men. It was the words that didn't mean much of anything to men that were left out. And thus a whole segment of the English language was excluded from that first dictionary. So Esme compiles her own dictionary of these so-called lost words in much the same way, using mainly female voices to convey their meanings.

There was no end to the words. No end to what they meant, or the ways they had been used. Some words’ histories stretched so far back that our modern understanding of them was nothing more than an echo of the original, a distortion. I used to think it was the other way round, that the misshapen words of the past were clumsy drafts of what they would become; that the words formed on our tongues, in our time, were true and complete. But I was realising that, in fact, everything that comes after that first utterance is a corruption.

The power of words. That is what this book is about. The right for all of them to exist and have meaning and be known and shared. Their ability to explain work and loss and love. To ignite memories, to resurrect. To allow someone to live on.

When our eyes finally met, it was as if we had journeyed together and come home more familiar.
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