Books and bakes #9: The Dictionary of Lost Words and cream tea scones

The bake

Before the pandemic, I used to go for afternoon tea every few months with a group of friends. Since we haven’t been able to do that for the past year, I decided to bake my own scones to enjoy (I haven’t made any finger sandwiches yet, but I’ve had the occasional mimosa…and, well, I drink tea every day). I’ve made these cream tea scones from King Arthur Baking a few times during the pandemic, and they always satisfy my craving. I don’t have any clotted cream to serve with them, but I like to halve them and add a dollop of strawberry jam. And of course the scones are best served warm.

The book

When I was trying to decide what book to start this weekend, I had a bit of difficulty. I started a couple of books I’d taken out from the library, but I just couldn’t get into them. Then I picked up The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. I’ve had an ARC for a few weeks and have wanted to get to it, but book club picks and library holds kept knocking its place down in the TBR pile. Now that I have started it, I am pleased to report that this novel has enraptured me. The story takes place in late-1800s and early 1900s in Oxford, England, where Esme, the daughter of a lexicographer, grows up spending her days in the Scriptorium, a room where her father and other dictionary editors sort through slips of submissions for the first Oxford English Dictionary. When Esme sees one of the editors drop one of the slips without noticing, she snatches it up. So begins her collection of words that she keeps hidden, locked away in a trunk. I’m about a quarter of the way through, so I guess things could change, but so far this is looking like a real gem of a book.


The changing landscape of language

The Toronto skyline is constantly changing.

The Toronto skyline is constantly changing.

My neighbourhood is changing. For one thing, a building is going up next to mine. It won’t directly obstruct my view, but if I stand at my window and turn my head to my right, there it is: a large piece of concrete staring back at me.

I used to be able to see the CN Tower in its entirety when I looked in this direction. I liked seeing which colours lit up the tower each night before I closed the curtains and got into bed. But it’s almost completely gone from view now.

Why do I care so much? After all, the view is the same when I look straight ahead. And, really, the CN Tower can be seen pretty much anywhere in this city.

It might just be nostalgia. I’ve lived in this neighbourhood for more than five years, and very little seems to stay the same. You get used to something, and then it changes. The city never takes a break. It never just lets itself be.

The historic St. Lawrence Market with the not-yet-finished L Tower in the background.

The historic St. Lawrence Market with the not-yet-finished sleek L Tower to the right.

It’s similar to language. New words are added to our lexicon all the time, and when they are added to the dictionary, some people find it harder to accept than others.

Recently, Oxford Dictionaries announced a list of words that were added to (which is different from the OED). I know some people who are having a hard time accepting that words such as adorbshumblebrag and mansplain have become a part of our lexicon. (Personally, I’m happy to have a more reliable source than Urban Dictionary to define some of these terms for me.)

If you’re someone who is uncomfortable with these additions, don’t worry. If you want to say crazy instead of cray, you can. Because even if there comes a day when people stop saying crazy, there will still be a place for it in the dictionary where its definition can be looked up. When words are added into the dictionary, nothing is taken out to make room. There’s space for both the old and the new.

Conversely, changes in our physical settings come and go. Buildings are knocked down, turned into parking lots and then built upon again. It can be difficult to keep track of everything. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what stood in one place before something new came in.

When I look out my window and see that changing view, I’m watching something being built, but I’m also watching something disappear. Maybe there will come a day when I forget about my ritual of checking the colour of the tower’s lights. I suppose I’ll have to rely on photographic evidence to remind me of what I once saw.

It’s all part of a bigger picture, I suppose—just as language is fluid, so is the city. And like our lexicon, the city will forever be reinventing itself, always developing, never complete.

Social media, slang and dictionaries

There were many words I didn’t know when I was younger. Whenever I came across an unfamiliar term I’d ask my parents what it meant. They always told me the same thing: look it up. If I really wanted to know—and I usually did—I would take the dictionary down from the shelf in the living room and find the definition.

A couple of decades later and, although I’ve tried, I still haven’t learned all the words. I use dictionaries quite a bit. Sometimes it’s for work, but often it’s for personal use. I usually find what I’m looking for, but things get tricky when it comes to slang.

I don’t use a lot of new slang, but I don’t have anything against it. However, there are many people who don’t think slang belongs in the dictionary.


But words aren’t added into the dictionary arbitrarily. Lexicographers conduct thorough research to determine if a word should enter the dictionary or not. A word or term must demonstrate common use and a history within the English language.




Increasing activity on social media sites shows why dictionaries continue to be important. Acronyms are constantly being created. (There was lots of discussion when OMG and LOL were entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in March.) Words already established in our vernacular have developed new meanings. Facebook’s friend and Twitter’s follow are two examples.

Hopefully authoritative texts such as the OED will continue to define slang. I want to understand what people are saying; that’s what it comes down to. But no matter how hard I’m laughing out loud at that funny thing you wrote, I’ll still comment with a ha-ha.