As a student I was told that the Oxford English Dictionary, commonly known as the OED, was the ultimate dictionary. Unfortunately, it is an expensive multi-volume dictionary and most of us can’t all keep copies of it at our desks. What makes the OED unique is that it doesn’t just give descriptions of words, but uses selected quotations culled from writings through the years (ok, centuries) to demonstrate when a particular word entered the language by finding the first written usage. Using quotations from different time periods also showed changes in meaning, spelling and pronunciation of that word over time.

Obviously a project of this scope undertaken before computers was incredibly labor and time intensive. So who wrote this icon of lexicography? Like a pre-internet Wikipedia, the editors relied on volunteers. Still, it was 71 years from the meeting that started this project in 1857 until the completed dictionary was published in full as ten volumes in 1928. Because the publishers needed to fund this project, they began in 1884 to release installments of the dictionary as they were completed.

Even a dictionary, something that much of the population finds useful but boring, has a story. I read about this story in The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, published in 1998.

The professor of the title was James Murray (1837-1915), an academic, but not a professor, from Scotland. He had always been interested in learning, especially languages, and worked as a teacher and a bank clerk in his younger years. He was a man of strong religious beliefs and a teetotaler. His first wife and daughter both died from tuberculosis. He and his second wife had eleven children. He took over as editor of the OED in 1878. He died in 1915, before the dictionary was completed and published.

 James Murray, editor and philologist

James Murray, editor and philologist

The madman was William Chester Minor (1834-1920), an American doctor who was an inmate at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. He was born in Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka, and lived there with his missionary parents until he returned to the United States at age 14. He went to Yale, worked as a surgeon during the American Civil War, and not long after began showing signs of paranoia and delusions. He spent some time in an asylum in the United States, but was released. In 1871 he told friends he was going to explore Europe for a year and caught a ship to London.

Minor’s illness was not improved by the trip. He lived in a poor part of London, even though he was wealthy, and he continued an old habit of hiring prostitutes and then hating himself for his weakness. Many of his delusions were also sexual, as he believed that people, coming through the floor and the ceiling, and were taking him in his sleep and forcing him to commit fiendish acts. One night in 1872, his paranoia caused him to believe someone was trying to break into his room. He ran after the phantom miscreant and shot and killed George Merrett, husband to a pregnant wife and father to six children. Minor never denied that he had killed Merrett and was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

He was admitted to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Because he was not seen as a danger to himself or others, and because his family had money, he was given two adjoining cells and was allowed quite a bit of freedom. He created a library in one of the rooms and spent much of his time collecting and reading books. He had been an inmate at Broadmoor for 8 years when he received in one of his book shipments a flyer asking for volunteer readers. So began the correspondence with Murray and his contributions to the OED.

Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor, Sandhurst, Berkshire. Printed in Illustrated London News 1867. Attribution:

Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor, Sandhurst, Berkshire. Printed in Illustrated London News 1867. Attribution:

While his volunteer work on the dictionary may have been a form of self-medication, his illness did not go away. In 1902 Minor cut off his penis, believing it to be at fault for all his sins. In 1910, when he was in his mid 70s, Minor was allowed to return to the United States in the custody of his brother and to be admitted to an asylum closer to his home and family. He died peacefully in his sleep in 1920 at the age of 85.

The story passed down through the years is that Murray wasn’t aware that Minor was in an asylum until after they had been corresponding for 20 years. The story goes that Murray begged to meet Minor and when he showed up at the asylum he was surprised to find Minor was an inmate rather than an administrator. But Winchester presents evidence that Murray was aware that Minor was an inmate. Not only did their correspondence last for years, but Murray visited Minor in his rooms many times over the years. Minor’s unique circumstances allowed him the resources, and more importantly the time, to make his contributions to the dictionary.

I want to be clear that the OED was not just the work of these two men. Many other editors and volunteers were involved in the 71 year process that created the original OED. It’s just that this relationship between two men who were dissimilar in so many ways, especially their circumstances, is an interesting way to frame what could have been a boring story of collecting words and quotations.

Although I believe that the OED is a great foundational dictionary, language constantly evolves. After 71 years of work, it was already outdated when it was published. One of the criticisms of the OED is that it is stuffy and old-fashioned. It is also noted that the original OED does not include any of the swear words that we know have been around since Anglo-Saxon times. C’mon, we all know those are often the first words kids look up when they learn how to use a dictionary.