Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English
By Simon Winchester
Harper Perennial 

In 1857, the London Philological Society began its ambitious project for creating the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The project took 70 years to complete, the 12 volumes of the OED finally getting published in 1928. Professor James Murray was the editor of the OED project. To complete the dictionary, Murray enlisted the help of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words with which the dictionary would be populated.

One of Murray’s most prolific contributors was Dr. William Chester Minor, an American citizen who had joined the Federal Army and participated in the Civil War. But he was discharged from military service when he developed severe mental problems. Soon after his discharge, he left America and arrived in London. But here he suffered from delusions of the Irish militia trying to kill him. In 1872 he rushed out of his hotel in pursuit of an imaginary Irish assassin and shot to death an innocent man who was on his way to work. This led to his incarceration in England’s Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane where he lived for the rest of his life, dying 48 years later in 1920.

The professor in Simon Winchester’s book is James Murray, and Dr. William Chester Minor is the madman. The book’s subtitle “A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary,’' brings together the major themes of the engrossing story—an insane man commits a murder for which he is incarcerated in a lunatic asylum but he becomes the contributor to a professor's historic dictionary project.

Prof. Murray had used Dr. Minor’s services for several years before he came to know that Dr. Minor was being treated in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum. But after learning the truth, Murray began to visit Dr. Minor regularly and they became lifelong friends.

Dr. Minor was supported by the pension that he was got from the American military and his stay at Broadmoor was comfortable. He had ample time to devote to the OED project which was of great interest to him. Winchester points out that Dr. Minor supported the widow of the man that he had killed in a fit of delusion. The widow regularly visited him in Broadmoor and used to bring him all the books that he needed from London shops. It is in one of the books that she brought to him that Dr. Minor found Prof. Murray's call for contributors to the OED project.

The Professor and The Madman is an imaginative account of how one man’s insane mind made a valuable contribution to another man’s dictionary project. The book also offers an interesting account of the problems that scholars faced when the English language didn't have any good dictionaries, and how the dictionaries gradually evolved over the centuries until finally the OED came into being in 1928. Winchester reminds the reader that Shakespeare didn't have any dictionary available to him when he was writing his plays.

“Whenever [Shakespeare] came to use an unusual world, or to set a word in what seemed an unusual context—and his plays are extraordinarily rich with examples—he had almost no way of checking the propriety of what he was about to do. He was not able to reach into his bookshelves and select any one volume to help: He would not be able to find any book that might tell him if the word he had chosen was properly spelled, whether he had selected it correctly, or hadn’t used it in the right way in the proper place.”

While helping Professor Murray in finding the meaning to numerous words, Dr. Minor brought some kind of a meaning to his own ruined life.

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