The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story - a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking. Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray's offer was regularly - and mysteriously - refused. Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor - that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane - and locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.
"One in a hundred people today suffer from schizophrenia: Nearly all of them, if treated with compassion and good chemistry, can have some kind of dignified life, of a kind that was denied, for much of his time, to Doctor Minor. Except, of course, that Minor had his dictionary work. And there is a cruel irony in this—that if he had been so treated, he might never have felt impelled to work on it as he did. By offering him mood-altering sedatives, as they would have done in Edwardian times, or treating him as today with such antipsychotic drugs as quetiapine or risperidone, many of his symptoms of madness might have gone away—but he might well have felt disinclined or unable to perform his work for Doctor Murray. In a sense doing all those dictionary slips was his medication; in a way they became his therapy. The routine of his quiet and cellbound intellectual stimulus, month upon month, year upon year, appears to have provided him with at least a measure of release from his paranoia. [...] One must feel a sense of strange gratitude, then, that his treatment was never good enough to divert him from his work. The agonies that he must have suffered in those terrible asylum nights have granted us all a benefit, for all time. He was mad, and for that, we have reason to be glad."
That quote alone earned the book an extra half star.
In the late 19th century, there was a push to create a wondrous new reference book: a complete historical dictionary of the English language. It would use written works as its basis for both spelling and usage. This “New English Dictionary” was a gargantuan task. After a few fits and starts with different editors, James Murray became the project’s caretaker and secured the Oxford University Press as its publisher in 1878. He put out a call to readers and amateur word sleuths across the country to send in interesting, different, and obscure usages of words and their sources. In just four years’ time, he had 3.5 million quotation slips.
Minor, sitting alone at Broadmoor, came upon the public appeal through the booksellers he regularly ordered from and began to catalog everything he could find. He kept a dutiful organization system, sending in thousands of quotations over the course of his life. Minor and Murray met in person only once, and there are no notes from that day, but the work each did for the preservation of language cannot be dismissed. With Minor’s help (and the help of many others), the dictionary was issued in full in 1928.
This is one of my favorite books ever. It would be on my Desert Island Top Ten list. Sure, Winchester is a little stingy with the footnotes and there’s no index, but that’s not his style. He’s out to prove that history is replete with interesting tales of people who contributed to society in major and unusual ways. Minor eventually deteriorated mentally and physically, but his work is worthy of celebration. His indefatigable efforts helped make the OED into a powerhouse in the dictionary community. Winchester’s prose is breezy and charming. There are probably only a few people in the world who can make lexicography exciting, and he’s one of them. If you get a chance, check this one out. You won’t regret it.
That said, for anyone who does not already know the stories that are intertwined with the collaboration and creation of the largest, most authoritative, and first complete collection of English words (and who has any interest in lexicography at all) will find this a very interesting read.
"I am nobody, treat me as a solar myth, or an echo, or an irrational quantity, or ignore me altogether". Throughout the book, it is clear we can not ignore a man like James Murray. He left school at the age of fourteen, became self taught through numerous books, tried to teach Latin to cows, he was fluent in several languages including many dead languages, he taught himself geology, biology, entomology, and because of his love for words among being a very learned man, was instrumental in creating the greatest dictionary of our time.
William Chester Minor was also a genius but was also insane. Throughout the book, we get to see a background of his life growing up, what he saw as a doctor in the Civil War during a battle called "The Wilderness". Perhaps this is what threw him over the edge into insanity, although I would guess that it was a perfect storm of circumstances throughout his life that drove him over the edge into insanity, perhaps it was in his mind all along.
What I found fascinating about this book was the history of the dictionaries before the OED. I have learned so many things in this book of 242 pages that seemed more like an 800 page book. The Irish who fought in the Civil War (I have a new appreciation for the Irish and a better understanding of why so many deserted), Sri Lanka, the history of the dictionary, lexicography, branding in the civil war...the list goes on and on.
It is a book I can only read once, however it is a book that I own so I can go back to it for reference from time to time. I am in awe of the men and women who volunteered their time, James Murray, William Minor and the men who came before them who were the stepping stones before the OED. The OED took seventy years to complete! For those that love words, love history, love the OED, this book is for you!
One of their most prolific volunteers was Dr. W.C. Minor, an American who was retired from the military due to madness. He was treated at a hospital and released and decided to go to Europe for a restful tour. Instead, he ended up believing that people were going through his rooms. Then one night he believed someone had been through his room and rushed out to find him and shot a man he believed to be the intruder. He killed the man and was put on trial for his murder and found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to Broadmore, a hospital for the criminally insane on April 17,1872.
Since he was a model patient and had his Army retirement money coming in he was given two cells that he filled with books and had his sketchbook that he made drawings from. During the day his cell was left unlocked and he could stroll the grounds if he wished. While reading a magazine he came across an ad for a request for readers for the dictionary and he sends off a reply to offer his services.
James Murray had been involved with the dictionary project from the start but on April 26, 1878, he was made the editor and put in charge of it. The project had been lagging and Murray put some much-needed oomph in it. Murray got it back on track getting more readers. Murray stopped going to school at fourteen because his family couldn't afford to send him farther. He was a self-taught man who knew a great deal, especially about languages and words.
Murray and Minor had been corresponding for twenty years before Murray finds out about Minor's situation. What will he find when he gets there? While Minor and Murray share a love of words, they couldn't have been more different. Minor, an American, grew up in an affluent household and received a grand education, while Murray, who grew up poor in Scotland was self-taught. Minor had seen war, while Murray had not. Minor was schizophrenic while Murray was sane as can be. However, the two of them looked exactly like each other: both bald with long white beards.
This was an interesting book that explores the massive undertaking of the Oxford English Dictionary which would take seventy years to create. Minor was a major contributor to this endeavor and the first volume is dedicated to him. They are currently working on the third edition of the OED which is expected to be completed in 2037. Minor is a sad person who if he existed today could have received treatment but then would he have contributed to the OED? His work on the OED was his therapy and it worked for a good long while until it stopped working and he became beyond help. I really enjoyed this book and the look at the two men it studied who were so different yet shared the same passion. I give this book five out of five stars.
The characters in the book evolve nicely. The book left me wondering what the life of W.C. Minor was really like. How is it that he contributed so much to the Oxford English Dictionary from an insane asylum. I was left wondering what the emotions must have been as Sir James Murray realized that he was dealing with a madman in the creation of the dictionary, yet W.C. Minor's submissions to the dictionary were near perfection. Other volunteers that contributed were not as precise.
This book will entertain you in the history of how the Oxford English Dictionary was created. Who was involved? How long did it really take? What methods did they use to document all those words? Does it continue today? It was a fascinating read!
In line with the story of creating the dictionary, there were several words that were challenging and needed to be looked up for their precise meaning for the story. I don't see this as a negative but it did remind me of my limited vernacular. I hope that whomever reads this tome will find it as interesting as I did. It taught me that even something as minor in every day life, something we usually do not give much thought to, such as the dictionary, really shouldn't be taken for granted.
I'll reread, but under its real Title "the PROFESSOR and the Madman"! (can someone fix this, please?)
What’s it about?
Lexicographer James Murray is attempting to compile the first OED, a vast undertaking that eventually consumes 70 years and is not completed until 12 years after his death. During this struggle, Murray communicates extensively with many keen contributors, but builds a particular friendship with one: Dr William Minor of Crowthorne. As well as being a star contributor to the important dictionary, Minor is a lunatic, consigned to stay indefinitely at Broodmoor lunatic asylum after committing a murder.
This is a book partly about their friendship, partly about that murder, but mostly about the making of the mighty OED.
What’s it like?
Detailed, thoughtful and written in such a way that you are drawn into Minor’s affairs with a sympathetic eye.
It’s slow-going as the book has multiple beginnings: an extract from a call for contributors to the dictionary is followed by a preface; the preface briefly outlines the mythology surrounding Murray and Minor’s first meeting and implies this book will offer revelations regarding the truth of that meeting; this is followed by a chapter detailing the life and murder of George Merrett, which of course introduces Minor; this is followed by a chapter outlining James Murray’s early life and the beginning of his involvement with the dictimary; THIS is followed by the murderer’s relevant history until that point; then there is a chapter outlining the very beginnings of the concept of the new dictionary. In short, nearly 90 pages have passed before the story truly gathers steam as some of the key participants (Murray and the dictionary) properly come together.
Such length is not simply the result of having to introduce various characters – including a book! – but is rather due to Winchester’s delight in minor details and speculation. He writes that Minor ‘selected a pen with the very finest nib’ to send his first words to the dictionary. Perhaps. Even probably. And perhaps not. More importantly, he suggests that the view from Minor’s suite at Broodmoor must have meant Minor’s sentence ‘cannot have seemed altogether a nightmare’. Hmm. I’m not sure a good view, even an excellent view, would detract one’s attention too much from the horror of being committed indefinitely to a lunatic asylum in a foreign country. Still, such intimate touches help to bring the characters and the events to life, making potentially very dry material more engaging, though they do sometimes lend the writing a slightly fictional air.
Perhaps appropriately, the ending is also a drawn-out affair with a chapter called ‘Then Only The Monuments’, which is primarily concerned with the deaths of the major characters, followed by a postscript, followed by an author’s note, followed by suggestions for further reading. This, then, is a leisurely read, one which will reward readers with the time and patience to piece together all the relevant details in their minds.
I had never realised dictionaries took so long to write and found the details Winchester included about the methods used were generally interesting, though I skimmed some of the biographical bits (I don’t much care where Minor or Murray grew up or how many siblings they had) and felt there were more examples of definitions than I particularly cared for. (It seems I am not a lexicographer at heart.)
This will be of most interest to those with a love of words and a love of history, though there is also some interesting discussion about Minor’s illness, finally revealed to be what we would now call schizophrenia. Towards the end of the book in particular Winchester discusses Minor’s illness in broader terms than in the preceding chapters, considering what triggers such mental disorders as schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and how they might be treated differently today.
Overall it’s a pleasant meander through a bit of literary history, replete with imaginative embroiderings at the edges.
Of course, no matter how intersting the read is, what stays in your memory for some time afterwards is the (spoiler alert) surgeon's self-emasculation. It was, to say the least, an eye watering moment for me.
"Surgeon of Crowthorne" may not be as enthralling as Winchester's Oxford English Dictionary book but well worth the read to see how one mentally insane gentleman helped shape the English language.
I think it may have caught my attention because Simon Winchester both wrote and narrated it. But of course, I didn't really mean to be attracted to Simon Winchester but Simon Vance, one of the best narrators I have come across!
It was a very good book to "listen" to--for an American who reads many British books--to hear the actual pronunciation of words not commonly used in American English.
Finally, my monstrously-sized ego was wounded deeply at a dinner party when a woman spoke to the OED, and then turned to me and expanded her comment with, "That is the abbreviation for the Oxford English Dictionary." Well, hoity toity!
This book is more about the history of the project and the key men involved that gave the dictionary life. Dr Murray was our Oxford professor and Dr. Minor was of course the Madman. In understanding the creation of the dictionary it is important to know the men behind the project. Dr. Minor was an American who served during the Civil War as a Army surgeon. After the war the doctor found himself in London trying to find his sanity. All was going well until one night when he murdered a man in cold blood. He was tried and found insane, he was sentenced to Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum until the monarchs "Pleasure Be Known" whenever that may be.
There is one scene that will leave the reader a little squeamish but overall a fascinating read.
While, as a revelation, this fact may be less than earth-shattering, Winchester uses this story of the inmate, Dr. W.C. Minor, the man he killed, George Merrett, and the main editor of the OED, Dr. James Murray, as a vehicle for all kinds of interesting details – he goes on quite a number of tangents, but they're always immensely well-written and fascinating! Winchester isn't afraid to stray from dry, historical writing – he definitely makes guesses, fleshes things out for colorful effect – but his research is also obviously thoroughly done, and he also stops short of fictifying (ok, that's not a word, but I think it should be) his topic – it's always made clear when his scenarios are theoretical.
I'd highly recommend this book not only for those interested in dictionaries and lexicography, but for anyone interested in Victorian England, the Civil War, treatment of the mentally ill, or any of a number of other topics.
In the end though, I enjoyed learning about the OED.