Welcome to Life Images by Jill

Welcome to Life Images by Jill.........Stepping into the light and bringing together the images and stories of our world.
I am a photographer, writer and multi-media artist. Through my blog I am
seeking to preserve images and memories of the beautiful world in which we live and the people in it.



Sunday, 7 February 2021

The Dictionary of Lost Words and the Oxford English Dictionary

I have just finished reading The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. Have you read it? 

This is a fascinating history about the production of the first Oxford Dictionary by Dr Murray and his lexicographers in a corrugated iron shed, the Scriptorium, in Dr Murray's garden in Oxford. Published in separate parts, fascicles, A-Ant was published in 1884, with the last section V-Z published in 1928. The dictionary eventually contained around 400,000 words, definitions and phrases demonstrating their usage. 

Into her book, Pip has skilfully woven real and fictional characters with a background of historical fact like the Women's Suffrage Movement in England and the onset of World War 1. 

I was interested to learn that women in South Australia were granted the right to vote in 1884 and could be elected to Parliament, although it wasn't until 1902 when white women were given the right to vote in Australian Federal elections.

Postscript.... I have just been alerted to the fact that... on 9th September 1893 New Zealand became the first self governing country in the world to give women the right to vote.  

Whereas women were not granted voting rights in the UK until 1928. White women in the USA were given the right to vote in 1920. In all cases, for people of colour and ethic background, the right to vote was granted much later than this. 

The book's blurb says -  In 1901 the word bondmaid was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. 
This is the story of the girl who stole it. 

Who was this girl? She is Esme and her father, who she refers to as Da, is one of the lexicographers. Esme's mother has died, and Dr Murray's housemaid and Esme's minder Lizzie, and her aunt, "Ditte" (Edith Thompson) are major characters in Esme's life.  

As a young child Esme sat under the sorting table at the Scriptorium to keep out of the way while her father worked. Esme steals a discarded word that has fallen to the floor. The word is Bondmaid. She hides the word in a trunk underneath Lizzie's bed. Many more words are added to the trunk over the years and Esme eventually becomes a lexicographer a person who compiles dictionaries.

Edith Thompson actually wrote the History of England for schools in 1881. Edith and her sister Elizabeth Thompson provided 15,000 quotations for A & B, and continued to provided quotations and editorial assistance until the last word was published.

Pip says that The Dictionary of Lost Words was her attempt to understand how the way we define language might define us.  Pip asks Do words mean different things to men and women? 

The first dictionary was defined by men, ....older, white, Victorian-era men....with women cast in minor or supporting roles. In addition to Edith & Elizabeth Thompson, there was also Hilda, Elsie and Rosfrith Murray who worked in the Scriptorium to support their father. Eleanor Bradley worked at the Old Ashmolean as part of her father's team of assistants. Countless women sent in quotations for words. The women who wrote novels, biographies and poetry that were considered as evidence for the use of particular words. 

The Scriptorium stored the words - written on a slip of paper the size of a postcard. Volunteers mailed them from all over the world. They were kept in bundles in hundreds of pigeon holes that lined the shed walls, with examples of their usage attached as proof. 

The word Bondmaid was discovered missing from the dictionary in 1901 following a letter from the member of the public. 

Bondmaid is not the kind of word people drop during conversation anymore, and that’s for the best: It means “a slave girl.” The word was most popular in the 16th century. Murray’s file for bondmaid, however, reached back even further: It included quotations as old as William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible....

However all was not lost for the lost word.....In 1933, bondmaid made its Oxford dictionary debut. It had taken nearly five decades to make the correction.  The Time the Oxford Dictionary Forgot a Word

Today the dictionary archives, original slips and proofs are held at the Oxford University Press in Oxford. 

Below you can see Dr Murray in the Scriptorium, and in the group photo, Dr Murray with some of the staff, including his two daughters Elsie and Rosfrith.  

When I was in high school, many years ago, I had a "Little Oxford Dictionary". Last week I went to our two local libraries to find an Oxford Dictionary, but could only find these two. 

At over $1000 Australian Dollars obviously a local library is not going to house all these volumes! I wonder if our State Library might. The Dictionary of Lost Words has really sparked my interest in the Oxford Dictionary and the origin of words. 

The second edition of the dictionary was not printed till 1989. You can now access it on line, but you do need to subscribe. More words being added every year. You can see the new words list here - New words list January 2020

In 2020 the Oxford's Word of the Year encompassed several "Words of an Unprecedented Year". Unfortunately you have to subscribe to find out what they are. I think you might be able to guess what they might be. 

Mental Floss has a list of 13 Facts about the Oxford English Dictionary. It makes amusing reading. 
The most complicated word in the Oxford English Dictionary? Set. In the dictionary’s 1989 edition, the three-letter word contains 430 senses (that is, shades of meaning) and requires a 60,000-word definition. Other short words with endless definitions? Run (396 senses), go (368 senses), and take (343 senses).
Have you been to Oxford? We visited briefly on a bus tour in 2005. I now wish I had gone to Oxford University Press archives. But we did visit The Eagle and Child pub, made famous as a meeting place for fantasy authors CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. You can see it below here. 

Thank you to the sites from where I have borrowed photos and information. 
For more information and your own research: 

Lynda Mugglestone - Lost for Words

Peter Gilliver - The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford English Dictionery on line 

History of the Oxford English Dictionery

Oxford English Dictionary blog


Book review - Publishing Arts Hub

Mental Floss.comThe Time the Oxford Dictionary Forgot a Word

and 13 Facts about the Oxford English Dictionary

Wikipedia.org - Oxford_English_Dictionary

I hope you have enjoyed my look at the Oxford English Dictionary. The more I research the more interesting it becomes. 

I love curling up with a good book. Don't you? What have you been reading lately? Perhaps you would like to tell us in your comments. 

Below is a pic of my old school dictionary. I just noticed it was published in 1941! No I am not that old! It actually belonged to my sister originally and then passed to me. It still has her name in it. Perhaps I should give it back to her. 

Thank you so much for stopping by. I hope you and yours are doing well. 
My old school dictionary
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  1. a fascinating story and I love learning about words

  2. An intriguing post, Jill! Wow, I didn't know the Australian women had voting rights so early. Also earlier than the American women. Interesting how the meaning of the word "senses" has changed so much.
    Thank you so much for providing so much history for All Seasons with your post (you must like historic things:)). Have a grand week, Jesh.

  3. Jill - I love words, and so this post was greatly interesting and inspiring to me! These days, I find the internet a tremendous resource for alternate words that can make my writing more appealing and unique. But a printed dictionary captures a point in time that is otherwise lost! Thanks for this fascinating topic for Mosaic Monday!

  4. I have a French friend a real linguist who was always asking me about my choice of words and sayings, you're right it's a fascinating subject once you stop and think! Good post. In terms of what I'm reading it is mostly blogs these days, which give me an interesting insight into such a variety of topics, when they are like this post.
    Happy Monday Jill
    Wren x

  5. I remember the place of prominence “the Oxford” had in our home. While a lot of parents would just tell their child what they wanted to know Mom and Dad would refer us to the Oxford or the Britanicca. Taught me resourcefulness. Thanks for the memories!!

    1. Yes I bemoan the fact that kids just look up the internet today instead of dragging out the dictionary or the bookcase of encyclopedias or the atlas. I used to love browsing through the encyclopedias.

  6. Interesting post Jill :) I used to love reading, my attention span isn't what it was anymore though!

  7. This is something I would like to read. The history of words fascinates me. I saw a movie (can't remember the title or the plot) that had scenes like the one you described about people mailing words to the main character.

    1. hmm... interesting - I wonder that that movie was?

  8. Fascinating to learn more about the origins of words and phrases!
    Thanks for sharing at https://image-in-ing.blogspot.com/2021/02/mmmmm.html

  9. Isn't it funny how reading a novel can spark such an interest! My bucket list is England and seeing castles and such.

    I'm so glad to see you at 'My Corner of the World' this week!

  10. I am a kiwi and need to point out that on 9th September 1893 New Zealand became the first self governing country in the world to give women the right to vote. There is fierce rivalry between Australia and New Zealand in many spheres and I could not let this go without correction. I really loved the book. A fantastic read with historical facts prompting ongoing research and discussion.

    1. I am very happy to be corrected! Yes Aussies & Kiwi's do have a fierce rivalry, but deep respect also and a very caring attitude to each other. Congrats NZ in being so forward thinking!


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