Love Song to a Dictionary

By Maeve Maddox

Most writers of English in every part of the world acknowledge the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as a reliable reference to settle questions of spelling, pronunciation, and usage.

Today computers are used to organize, store, and supplement the online Second Edition of the OED at the rate of 4,000 new words a year. But the OED had its beginnings long before computers made the lexicographer’s work easier.

It took 120 keyboarders working six years to key in the more than 350,000,000 handset characters of the First Edition from which the Second Edition derives.

The First Edition, compiled and printed the old-fashioned way, required numerous editors, thousands of volunteer readers, millions of slips of paper, and 70 years to achieve completion.

But these are nothing but dry statistics. For a glimpse of the human side of the mighty OED, read Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman.

Subtitled A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Winchester’s book is an instructive example of narrative nonfiction as well as a fascinating read. It tells the story of James Murray (the professor) and W.C. Minor (the madman).

Murray took over the editorship of the OED in 1879 and remained at the job until his death in 1915. He guided the dictionary from A-T. Minor was a former American army doctor incarcerated from 1872-1910 in the Broadmoor hospital for the criminally insane. He contributed thousands of the quotations that illustrate usage in the OED entries.

Minor killed an Englishman, but escaped execution by reason of insanity. Because of his personal wealth and usually mild behavior, he was given special privileges, such as having two rooms in a cell block with a pleasant view. He fitted one of the rooms as a library and collected old books.

When Professor Murray sent out a call in 1879 for volunteers to contribute illustrative quotations to the OED, Minor responded. He applied himself to a systematic reading regimen and earned Murray’s attention and respect.

Winchester’s embroideries and speculations are sometimes a little over the top. He waxes romantic as he commiserates with Minor’s victims and speculates on the possible causes of Minor’s mental condition. Overall, however, The Professor and the Madman is an excellent use of research to create a non-fiction book that is hard to put down. It casts a reference book we take for granted in a new light.

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3 Responses to “Love Song to a Dictionary”

  • nick

    Though I love The Professor and the Madman, The Meaning of Everything is a much better “history” of the OED, as it takes a much larger view than just the two characters in “Professor.”

  • Maeve

    Nick,
    Thanks for the tip. I’ll look for it.

  • Levi Stribling

    I wholeheartedly concur with the push for your audience to have exposure to Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, but might I suggest that his follow-on book The Meaning of Everything serves as a resolute addendum to that work. The book works in Murray’s selection as the Chief Lexicographer to the OED as well as some of the major characters that played a role in the lexicography of the age. Winchester also introduces the reader to a brief insight into how what we call the English Language of today came about, the roots, per se.

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