Posted 20 hours ago

The Lost Words: Rediscover our natural world with this spellbinding book

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i loved reading about esme growing up amongst the work of her father and falling in love with words and their meanings. i enjoyed her relationship with her dad and how they bonded over their mutual affection for language. Inspired by a chance omission in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, this is a story of poignant love and heartbreaking loss. I savored every word!

After Macfarlane read the ‘Pokémon paper’ (a study published in Science in 2002 by Professor Andrew Balmford from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology), he started to gather other evidence of a loss of ‘nature-literacy’. A National Trust survey, for instance, showed that half of children couldn’t tell the difference between a wasp and a bee, yet almost all could name a Dalek; and a three-year RSPB research project found only one in five children in Britain are ‘positively connected to nature’. If I said that I spent an hour booktoking, would you know what I meant? The definition would be roughly equivalent to spending time watching bookish videos on TikTok. However, who gets to decide if a word is a word? Is it now a word because I spoke it into existence? Or that I published it through GoodReads? I really don’t want to spoil this book for you – because I enjoyed it a lot and it would be far too easy to write something that gave the whole thing away. This is part coming of age story – part war story – part fascination with words – part history of the OED. And these are a few of my favourite things.Instead it's a fictionalized account of the writing and compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. It begins with young Esme who hides out under the table in the Scriptorium where her father works. She is enamored of words and is delighted when slips of them, with their definitions and quotes, find their way to the floor.

The crucial opening scene of the book is cleverly based around a true incident ( https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/5...) – the only known undeliberate omission from the collected works – the word Bondmaid (meaning slave girl). Still and all, I'm so pleased that I read this wonderful story. I think it could have made more of an impact on me had some stylistic choices been made differently; that is always the way with making art, no one can create something as powerful and fully realized as this book is without making choices that won't work for everyone. I felt very strongly the aura of choices and decisions affirmatively, consideredly made at every turn. This is in no way a slapdash or ill-made work of fiction. Its real and its fictional characters are treated with equal gravitas. That the factual characters take up less screen time is a decision that the author and editor clearly planned carefully and executed deftly. I can offer no more heartfelt recommendation than "read this book soon." I *could* have, if certain other, less distancing, choices had been made, turned obnoxious pest and shouted at you to get the book NOW read it on the Jitney or in the Admiral's Club but just GET IT!!

The Lost Words

The novel is a little slow to get going, but once it does both Esme's story and that of the dictionary become absorbing reading. Esme's life is not easy as she suffers significant losses but through it all she never loses her love of words. For a non-fiction companion piece I recommend The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester (the US edition is called The Professor and the Madman), an account of the fascinating relationship between James Murray and one of his contributors who was the inmate of an asylum for the insane.

Under the direction of the editor, Dr James Murray, and with several other assistant lexicographers, her Da, Henry Nicoll was compiling a dictionary: the Oxford English Dictionary. The words, their meanings and their use in quotes came on slips of paper, to be sorted and debated (sometimes quite vociferously) and included or rejected. To mark one year since The Lost Words was published, Penguin Books asked Rob Bushby to summarise the breadth and depth of responses generated. Read Rob's guest blog here.


All over the country, there are words disappearing from children's lives. These are the words of the natural world; Dandelion, Otter, Bramble and Acorn, all gone. A wild landscape of imagination and play is rapidly fading from our children's minds. A wonderful story, based on fact, is told of how the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled. It seems crazy to us today, but a team of learned scholars sat in a garden shed gathering and annotating words and their meanings. As they worked on each letter of the alphabet the words were stored on slips of paper in wooden pigeon holes. Each word was taken out and the meaning of it disputed endlessly until there was agreement on its definition(s). No wonder it took fifty years to get to Z.

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