An illustration of two women surrounding the words 'Bitter barren women'
An illustration of two women surrounding the words 'Bitter barren women'

“Some words are more than letters on a page, don’t you think?” asks Sarah, a character in Pip Williams’ engaging debut novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words. “They are like bullets, full of energy.” Williams’ book explores power, the strength and the value of words – as well as those who define their legacies. Set across four decades from 1887, The Dictionary of Lost Words fictionalises a real and often overlooked true story: the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary.

“I didn't want to write a fiction where I had tampered with the known facts,” Williams, who lives in Adelaide, explains over Zoom. Using the framework of dates and places committed to history, her story unfurls around a fictional character, Esme, who grows up under the tables of the Scriptorium – a real garden shed where the dictionary was compiled by editor James Murray – and becomes a woman who creates her own record of the words considered too obscene or obscure for formal inclusion.

Esme notes down the words of the working class and poor women in the market; she records the words spoken in the kitchen by servants, and the fierce femininity of the birthing room. In doing so, she creates a dictionary of words that would otherwise have been lost – one that has only been rediscovered through the work of scholars, lexicographers and, most recently, Williams herself.

Williams is a social scientist, and says that she had the idea for her book after reading The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words, Simon Winchester’s history of dictionary editor Murray and one of his contributors. “It’s a fascinating read, but by the end of it I realised that everybody involved [in writing the dictionary] was a man. All the editors were men, the people paying for it were men, most of the lexicographers were men, most of the assistants were men,” she explains. “There were a few women, usually daughters and wives of the editors, who were assistants, but they had no decision-making power.”

Even though women were able to submit entries to the dictionary, they didn’t have as much access to books and education as men. Furthermore, in order for a word to be included in the dictionary, its reference had to be written down in print. As Williams says: “Over 90 percent of the references were written by men. It was a gendered text.”

Through Esme, Williams captures some of the unrecorded words that haven’t been lost to history; words such as “morbs” (“a temporary sadness”), “lie-child” (an infant born in secrecy) and “bondmaid” (a girl who is in life-long service). But she also documents the important changes of definitions in the dictionary – those that really did happen, and recorded a shift in gender politics at the same time. The notion, for instance, of “sisters” being women not joined just in blood, but by “a shared political goal”; or of a mother not being “a female parent” but “a woman who has given birth to a child”.

These changes are still going on every day at the OED, and the fact that the dictionary leaves them intact over the decades allows us to trace society’s changing attitudes. “Because it’s a historical dictionary, it deals with how words develop over time and records sense that might be obsolete,” explains Eleanor Maier, executive editor at OED. “It’s such a brilliant resource for charting how things go in and out of fashion, or how meanings change.”

Take “Bluestocking”, for instance. Now a word that has relatively light-hearted feminist associations when not used in a factual sense, it could originally refer to either men or women. “The term arose because women such as Mary Wesley Montague were having these literary salons and intellectual gatherings where men were also invited, which was quite unusual at the time,” explains Maier. “There was one man who wore blue stockings, rather than the posher white ones, so they became known as the bluestocking circle.” Gradually, the term changed to refer only to women – and became more derogatory in the process. In 1822, for instance, William Hazlitt declared in his column: “I have an utter aversion to blue-stockings. I do not care a fig for any woman that knows even what an author means.” Seventy years later, a medical journal warned of the perils of academia: “By the highest mental education they [sc. girls] may be made into ‘blue-stockings’ or neurotics, or both together.”

“The great thing about the OED is that the evidence is right here: you can see the first quotation we've managed to find,” says Maier. “When it comes to gender terms in dictionary there are two aspects to it: the words themselves, and the scholarship of tracing that history.”

A photograph of The Dictionary of Lost Things against a red background

The Dictionary of Lost Things. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

Feminism, for instance, meant having “feminine” qualities in the mid-1840s, but by the end of that century would come to take on political associations. Rebecca West’s now-famous quote, “I only know that people call me a Feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute” is listed in the dictionary as evidence of this from 1913. The first entries for “Suffragette”, which features in The Dictionary of Lost Words, are attributed to The Daily Mail in 1906, five years before Emmeline Pankhurst is quoted. It doesn’t take long for the factual term to become one of suggestion – “suffragette-types” were considered “bitter, barren women” in 1913, and in the Fifties suffragette-like women “were not going to be ignored and snubbed”.

To look through the references is to see a pocket history of gender politics: in the Eighties, second-wave feminism is recorded via Spare Rib magazine (“Our generation, women now in their fifties and sixties, were the first to reap the full benefit of the reforms brought about by the suffragette struggle”).

Maier and her team are currently working on the third edition of the dictionary, a complete revision of the work first undertaken by James Murray and his team 150 years ago. Work began on it in the late-Nineties, and she says they are about half-way through. Maier is keen to point out, though, that the digitising of the dictionary means that entries are revisited constantly and updated quarterly. “It’s almost seems a bit outdated, really, just to talk about the editions.” At the moment, she says, “there are debates over pregnant people as opposed to pregnant women.” To edit the dictionary is to think of how future generations will reflect on the attitudes held by how we use words.   

One gendered word that Maier has been working on lately is “bitch”; its revised entry, she says, will be published very soon. “Again, you can see a change. There’s the term referring to a female dog, and there’s a term of abuse for a woman that goes back a long way. But then we’ve got the recent use where it’s a more neutral term for a women,” she gives an example: “Hey bitches, what should we do tonight?” It’s exactly the kind of female-led colloquialism that Esme would have squirrelled away.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

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