Crouched beneath a table in a garden shed in Oxford, five-year-old Esme watches a word flutter to the ground, overlooked by the men working above her. It is 1887 and Esme’s father is one of a team of lexicographers gathering words for the first Oxford English Dictionary, edited by James Murray.

The word Esme retrieves and hides in a small wooden trunk belonging to the Murray family’s housemaid Lizzie, is ‘bondmaid’, meaning ‘a slave girl’. Later, Lizzie supplies another definition: “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.”

Bondmaid wouldn’t be discovered to be missing from the dictionary until 1901.

As Esme grows up and eventually joins Murray’s team, she begins to collect other lost, discarded or neglected words. In time, she realises that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences in particular are often considered less important and unworthy of being recorded. It is these words that will eventually be collected in another volume, Women’s Words and Their Meanings.

The Dictionary of Lost Words (Pip Williams, Affirm Press, $32.99) is more than just a celebration of words, however. Set in the years leading up to the Great War, when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height, it offers an alternative view of a world on the brink of irrevocable change. The result is a wonderfully evocative and thought-provoking book that stays with you long after you finish reading.

Ylla Watkins


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