Fear for Words

Pocket Book Club’s first book for 2021 was The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. I am very pleased to say there is madeira Cake in this book. One of our best hopes for any book is for it to include some delicious food and I got to bake the madeira cake twice due to a last-minute COVID lockdown postponing our meeting for a week. This is the recipe I used and I recommend it as lemony and sweet. I am hoping for more books with madeira cake.

I fear for some words. I have blogged before about my mission to discover a dictionary definition of duchess as a piece of furniture. I have also written about, and will readily rant on, the importance of culture and words and my dread of losing biscuits to cookies and lollies to candy.

Also, I own lots of dictionaries.

The most beautiful is a set of Australian National Dictionaries produced by Oxford University Press.

The most battered is an Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary printed in 1985 literally held together with sticky tape.

The creation of the first comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary is the setting and timeframe for The Dictionary of Lost Words. The Scriptorium where editor James Murry worked with a group of men to gather and define words is the centre of Esme’s world and words are her obsession too.

I never understood the rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. It is so defiantly untrue. Words have power. Words are the reason a cheese brand must change its name and ‘acceptable’ words, like history, are decided by the winners, those with the power. Williams’ uses Esme’s love of words, the ones the men around her don’t let into the dictionary, the ones the men dismiss, or never hear, to illuminate disparity of power between the classes and gender in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The first word Esme steals and collects is a good example. A bondmaid. A slave girl, or women bound to service for life. Indeed, Murray’s housemaid and mother figure to Esme, Lizzie has a little choice about giving her life to the service of the Murray family.

“Words define us, they explain us, and, on occasion, they serve to control or isolate us.

Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams (Affirm Press)

Fast forward to this century and power imbalance still exists and there is that word that caused some contention in Book Club. A word that Esme collects that does not make it into the Oxford dictionary.

Cunt. 1. Slang for vagina. 2. An insult based on the premise that a woman’s vagina is vulgar.

Once upon a time, when I was a child and teenager, swear words were mostly to do with sex, bodily functions and their body parts associated. They were fiercely taboo. Nowadays they are commonplace. In movies, on TV, in the schoolyard. These days, taboo words are those that marginalise people, racial slurs for instance. (See cheese above! A decision a agree with by the way)

The one exception is the word cunt, a word which I have favoured for some years now, even though I know it disturbs many people, including my dear book club friends. The reason I love this word is that it is strong. One syllable of harsh consonants. It cuts through the air and you don’t mess with it. It is no pussy. It is a word women should be proud to be associated with. But, why so taboo? Well, maybe the strength of the word is the clue. Why would any society dominated by patriarchy support a word that describes women’s genitalia as anything but accommodating and meek?

The Pocket Book Club consensus is that they loved The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. I quite liked it. It has allowed me the opportunity to bake madeira cake and to rant on one some of my favourite topics.

Oh, and last of all, my Australian National Dictionary includes an entry for cunt starver – a man in jail for not paying maintenance to his wife.

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