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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary - Simon Winchester William Shakespeare (1564-1616) had no English dictionary to reference when he wrote his 38 plays, sonnets and poems.

Until Samuel Johnson, an English writer and lexicographer, compiled A Dictionary of the English Language the English speaking people had few concise or friendly dictionaries to refer to for definitions and/or spellings. Johnson’s volume took nine years to complete and was published in 1755 with a total of 42,773 words defined and it weighed about 22 pounds. Johnson’s was the ‘go to’ dictionary until 150 years later when The Oxford English Dictionary (hereinafter referred to as OE) was published in 1928.

In comparison, the OE took 70 years to compile and was published in installments (called fascicles----separate sections of a book) as it was completed. For example, “the first completed volume 1, A-B, “ was finished in 1888 nine years after the project began. When it was republished in its entirety in 1928, it totaled 10 volumes with 414,800 words.

The completion of the project was noticed worldwide with the announcement of the final installment made New Year’s Eve, 1927 in The New York Times with the last word “zyxt, --the second indicative present tense, in local argot, of the very to see---…”-. It was big news in the English speaking world, the completion of the The Oxford English Dictionary. (Note, the final installment, was not yet printed though.)

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Ceylon Women - 1910
Flick@shilanka'spic.photostream

Dr. William Chester Minor
The son of an English missionary family, William Chester Minor, was born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). He was a voracious reader who was encouraged to learn as many local languages as possible since his was a traveling missionary family. By age 12 the bright student knew Singhalese, Burmese, some Hindi and Tamil, and some various Chinese dialects. He was well-traveled throughout the Far East and totally integrated into the area.

Take note though, on the beautiful island of Ceylon the nubile young women frolicked mostly naked along the shoreline and he told doctors later that he had “lascivious thoughts” about the young girls early on. It was difficult probably to reconcile his father and step-mother’s strong religious missionary work with naked young women. Then take into account those active hormones bouncing around in his head and body. Oh, my. Poor kid.

Minor had a bright future in front of him being sent to continue his studies in America at the age of 14. He later graduated from Yale as a doctor of medicine and joined the U. S. Army as an officer/surgeon in the Civil War. It’s suggested that some negative experiences in his capacity as a surgeon with the related responsibilities, may have contributed to his mental anguish which turned into full paranoid delusions at the age of 34 when he was allowed to resign from the military and draw a pension for life.

Conflicts as mentioned above were understandably difficult for Dr. Minor to rationalize and it’s suggested that these conflicts may have attributed to his mental anguish which turned into full paranoid delusions. (Disclaimer: I am not qualified to determine what drove Dr. Minor to paranoid delusions.) The delusions though, if anything is good about them, haunted them mostly during the nighttime hours. I’m sure it made sleep a fitful endeavor most of his adult life with nocturnal visitors, sometimes Irish who he was determined were trying to poison him. Others were diluting his bodily fluids as dear Dr Minor had all kinds of crazy thoughts. Insane thoughts, certainly.
But wanting to put his experience in a military ‘insane asylum’ in America behind him, he decided to travel abroad with his first stop London. ( ‘Insane asylums’or ‘lunatic asylums’ were the generally used terms at the time.)

However, had it not been for his psychosis his contribution to the OE may never had happened.

During one period of paranoia, he shot an innocent working man, leaving six children and a grief stricken wife. The result of the death of the innocent man was that Dr. Minor was determined to be insane and placed in the newest ‘lunatic asylum’ in England at the time, Broadmoor just north of London until such time as “…her Majesty’s Pleasure be known.” Meaning, of course, an unspecified period of time.

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Dr. W. C. Minor at Broadmoor

Since Dr. Minor was earlier determined to be insane by the U. S. Army receiving a regular pension, he was wealthier than the average resident of Broadmoor. Dr. Minor was respected by the governor of the institution, and therefore given more privileges including two rooms with book shelves lining entire walls and a paid part-time servant who was a fellow inmate. Due to his lucidity part of the time, he was allowed to obtain books mostly from London and a few friends, the widow of the murdered man, for one would bring him books. The widow forgave him for murdering her husband by the way, and Dr. Minor did contribute through the years to her household expenses.


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Broadmoor Entrance, Berkshire, England

Fortunately for him and the OE he came across a solicitation (found probability in one of his delivered books or newspapers) for volunteers to read and categorize words for the new dictionary which was an idea created by London’s The Philological Society The society is oldest learned society in Great Britain devoted to the scholarly study of language and languages.

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Bird's Eye View of Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor, 1867

The dictionary was originally named A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society. At the time Dr. Minor saw the solicitation, the editor was a well-respected scholar named Professor James Murray.

Professor James Murray
Professor Murray came from a Scot working class family and left school at 14 because they could not afford to further education him. However, the precocious child and then teen had a unique thirst for knowledge and at 17 was appointed headmaster of a school.

His specialty and interest was the English language, words; the history of words, the meaning of words, anything and everything to do with words. As an adult he became a successful scholar and a member London’s The Philological Society so Murray was a natural for the once again open position of editor of the new dictionary.

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Professor James Murray in the Scriptorium at Banbury Road, 1880s.

Professor Murray placed the advertisement seeking assistance from volunteers who were willing to assist in the reading of books and categorizing words found in thousands of books from centuries past.

The solicitation said that words both common and unique would be written on a 6”X4” piece of white unlined paper with specific quote(s) including page and year of the quote and associated examples of usage.
Responding to the solicitation and after reading the requested books, Dr. Minor sent his first batch of words on the 6”X4” pieces of paper in the spring of 1885.

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The Last Card Made by Professor Murray for the Last Entry of the Dictionary

Twenty-seven years after the decision to compile the dictionary, the first installment A to Ant, was published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford. The publication was a very happy event for Professor Murray and he was most curious as to why the most prolific submitter of words, Dr. Minor, was not in attendance at the celebration especially since he lived nearby at Burkshire just west of London.

A romanticized version of the first meeting between them was passed down through the years, but eventually the circumstances surrounding the actual meeting surfaced. The meeting “took place in January 1891, six years earlier than is favored by the romantics…” and was, of course, at Broadmoor.

Both gentlemen were about the same age, slight build and long whiskers. They did not look alike but certainly favored each other.

Their working and genuine mutual respect appears throughout their more than 20 years of correspondence and visiting by Professor Murray over those years.

Professor Murray’s was a labor of love as a lexicographer of The Oxford Dictionary of English. And assistance by the ‘madman’ of Broadmoor, helped the entire effort of the compilation of the respected and famed worldwide dictionary.

Without doubt, author Simon Winchester loves words. I found myself regularly picking up my Kindle which came already downloaded with The Oxford Dictionary of English and to look up words I’ve never seen nor heard. Most of the words I looked up I would consider obscure words, not readily spoken or found in any literature I’ve read my entire life. I think Winchester wants us, as readers, to become more literate, knowledgeable and have better use of the English language. Nothing wrong with that.

An index, though, would have been helpful and although I tried, I had a difficult time not comparing the book to The Story of Ain't which I loved. The story of the publication of Webster’s 3rd Edition of the American Dictionary was an excellent book and yes, it had a wonderful index which I used in writing the review. No index, twice as long to write this review, all things being equal.

Speaking of equal, my preference is Webster’s over Oxford. I haven’t thought about dictionaries this much, ever and now I look at all the tiny information with each entry that I never looked at before.

It's a task, a big task, for the compilation of dictionaries and word lovers only need apply. That would be me (in my imagination, anyhow.)