The Dictionary of Lost Words in a nutshell

The red thread of the story follows a young woman from Oxford, Esme. She grew up surrounded by words, as her father was part of the team who compiled the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Esme takes upon herself to preserve the words that are considered not important enough by the mostly male team of lexicographers to be included in the official dictionary.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a historical fiction book, and the events span on more than 100 years, from the 1880s to the end of 1980s.

Overall impression

I absolutely loved reading this book! I started reading it with no expectations and I was blown away. It is a rich story that beautifully interweaves reality and fiction, getting close to your heart while also sharing historical moments of great importance.

Esme is a true heroine, a guardian of words. She questions the status quo and is genuinely passionate to offer all words the same chance to be passed on to the next generations.

When words are put together for the first time 📚

The story of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is the core element of the book, and it is based on true events! Sir James Murray began this work in 1879 (he unfortunately died in 1915) and only in 1928 the dictionary was completed. Can you imagine that it took almost 50 years!!

The process of compiling the dictionary was extremely demanding – words and their definitions were stored on paper slips that had to be ordered, checked against existing publications, revised, and then sent to the press. It took 5 years to publish the first volume (A to B). Imagine the sorrow when missing words were pointed out by the readers …

When women fight for equal rights 💪

The story also covers the women’s fight in the 1900s to have the right to vote. It presents the evolution and deeds of suffragettes – members of the activist women’s organization founded by Emmeline Pankhurst.

During those times, women who were studying were not even awarded degrees despite passing all exams. One of the characters says “I’ve finished, sat my exams last June. [..] No graduation, of course. No degree. But it’s satisfying to know I would have achieved both if I wore trousers”. Enraging.

When war is in full swing 💣

World War I is also captured in the book. The focus is how all resources were re-directed to support war causes, and all the other endeavours are either slowed down or stopped.


The Dictionary of Lost Words is definitely one my favourite books of 2021 so far! It is a touching and inspiring story of a woman who was born ahead of her time, a woman whose determination and courage represent the stories of real women who contributed to the first Oxford English Dictionary.

A historical fiction book that I will recommend to everyone from now on!

What are your go-to recommendations when some asks “what should I read next?” Let me know in the comments’ section 😀

‘Till next time … happy reading!


PS: I received a digital copy of this book in March 2021 at my request, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. My review expresses my own thoughts about the story and it is not influenced in any way by the publisher or the author. The book was published on April 8th, 2021.

6 thoughts on “The guardian of words who was ahead of her time: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (book review)

  1. Great review! I’ve heard of this book, but I wasn’t sure if I want to read it or not. Your review makes it sound really interesting, so I’m going to add it to my tbr!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad that the review convinced you to give it a chance! I was so surprised by the story – started reading with no expectations and the more I read, the more I got hooked on 😀 Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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