As an English graduate, I have read a lot of books over the years, but there is one that I keep thinking about.
Every time I pick up a new book I hope it compares to this but it doesn’t, so I think it’s about time I share the article I wrote for The Everyday Magazine on the book that gave me hope.
Books are often a place of escapism, but when you find a book that makes you feel hopeful and inspired to live in the real world… that’s when you know you have found a good book.
Last year, I set myself a reading goal to read fifty books and although I only read thirty nine, I still managed to read some amazing novels that have not only really inspired me, but they’ve also helped me to have a more hopeful outlook on life. Marian Keyes’ Grown Ups taught me to stop aspiring for perfection and appreciate what I have in each moment. I learnt that striving to feel like a ‘grown up’ is an unachievable perfection. Everyone is winging it and doing their best, and when you realise that you will be able to find a sense of calm when life gets stormy. Delia Owens Where the Crawdad Sings was an essential read on following your passions and learning to stay true to yourself. Protagonist Kya ignored the misconceptions and expectations others had of her and inspired readers to do what is right for themselves. But the book that really made me hopeful was my favourite book of the year: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams.
As a writer and once upon a time an English student, this novel really blew me away. I’ve been apprehensive to write this article just because I’ve been so worried about not giving this book the justice it truly deserves. I have to admit, I am still angry at myself for not buying the beautiful hardback copy and only reading it on an eBook – not that there’s anything wrong with eBooks, just if I had the hardback copy I would have smothered its beautiful face all over my blog and social media pages and sang its praises much more than I already have.
So, onto the actual contents of the book that I still cannot fully draw my head out of. The plot, beautifully crafted by the author, follows Esme’s frustrating journey with the English language and her frustration with the male dominance over language about women. Esme’s father worked in a scriptorium in which he and a team of other men gathered words to standardise language into a dictionary. However, it was in this very place where Esme discovered that words were sometimes discarded and deemed not good enough for the dictionary. More often than not, these words were words associated with women.
Esme secretly scurried these discarded words away, and sought to learn their meaning. One of these words which I found prominent was the use of the word cunt. There is an interesting and almost comical dialogue in the novel whereby Esme is told that she has one but it was deemed as too vulgar to appear in the dictionary, Esme struggled to reason why a word used to describe female genitals was also excluded from the dictionary. Dollymop, meaning a female prostitute, and the adjective knackered were also words excluded from the dictionary but were used by the ‘common-folk’ in the book as everyday language to describe women. This everyday experience is neglected by the male lexicographers who deemed them unworthy.
The way Esme treasured these words gave hope for them to retain meaning and worth. Holding onto these words that people (in particular women) were able to identify with, gave those able to identify with them hope; hope for recognition, but also hope for change. The novel, which “follows the actual timeline of the Oxford English Dictionary” demonstrates that like history, the history of language was dictated by men. It can be interpreted that words, especially around words used to describe women, were deemed unimportant, but Esme’s hope and determination to find a place for these words in the world demonstrates that change can always happen. The words which Esme collects throughout the course of her childhood through to adulthood eventually get published into a manuscript called ‘Women’s Words and their Meanings’.
A line that I found incredibly powerful from the novel was from Lizzie, Esme’s housemaid, who described herself as a Bondmaid, a word excluded from the dictionary. The noun Bondmaid was excluded from the Oxford English Dictionary until 1933. Lizzie explains to Esme that it means she is ‘bonded for life by love, devotion, or obligation’ and ‘a young woman bound to serve until her death’. She said ‘at the end of the day there’s no proof I’ve been here at all’. Lizzie’s inability to have language that she used to describe herself in the dictionary meant that she felt her identity would leave no mark on her place in the world, as if her identity was valued as irrelevant and insignificant as she felt she was indefinable. The hope generated from the recognition of her identity in the publication of ‘Women’s Words and their Meanings’ meant that Lizzie began to feel as though there was a place for her and that society had begun to move away from being just a ‘man’s world’.
Like Williams’ book illustrates, language is important for our own identity. We still see this today with gender issues, but as new words are coming into the world we are able to help create a sense of belonging for these identities. In an essay on ‘Relationship between Language and Identity’, it is concluded that; “Language has two main functions. It helps in communication and gives a group of people a sense of identity and pride. Various groups of people use certain jargon that is only comprehensible to people within the group. Language may show the social status, gender, and race of an individual.”
In the novel, where all language was demonstrated to be defined by men showed the definition of menstruation as ‘unclean’. As the socio-political landscape changes, the definition is now used in a more biological sense, but the change demonstrates that the male dominance over language in this instance portrayed women as dirty once a month and alienated them for their natural cycle. This can also be seen in the male definition of mother which led Esme to reason that if you have a still born or your son dies in the war, you can no longer be a mother; the word was defined to be nurturing and raising a child. The noun is now more inclusive and combines birth, raising, and in relation to a child. Having these perspective as a reader knowing today’s definitions on the words compared to Esme’s discoveries really illustrates how language shapes the world and emphasises why it’s so important to include all words and definitions.
Language allows us to explain and share our thoughts and ideas to others. We can describe complex ideas through mutual understanding of the meanings of the words making these shared definitions recognisable to everyone; “language plays an important role in defining or describing the identity of a person”. The more language evolves, there is hope that people are able to identify themselves within these definitions. Being able to define ourselves and have others understand what we mean by this creates a space that can include and allow others to feel as though they belong. With the growth of language and the inclusion of these words and their definitions, there is hope for society to be better by being inclusive of all identities.
Whether or not you love a book for its escapism, literature always provides within its storytelling a feeling or situation which we find relatable. But Williams’ novel creates hope for us all to be included.