It’s a relatively short tome (about 250 pages), written by British journalist and author Simon Winchester. It tells, in extremely readable prose, the fascinating story of the two men most important to the publication of the world’s greatest dictionary, whose first volume (A-ANT) was published 139 years ago today, on February 1, 1884.
Two more unlike fellows could scarce be found the world over.
Professor James Murray, who spent over four decades on the project and who died before the last–twelfth–volume was published in 1928, was a Scottish lexicographer and philologist with a side interest in electricity whose friend, Alexander Graham Bell, often referred to as the “grandfather of the telephone.” As the editor of a new project–the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)–whose aim was to encompass almost a thousand years of the spoken and written English language, Murray soon found it necessary to give up his teaching job and devote himself full-time to the challenge.
Early in his work, Murray put out a call for volunteers to send in, on individual slips of paper, examples of English words and their definitions, together with an example of their use (an early example of “crowd-sourcing,” if ever there was one). By the time the project was well under way, the hundreds of thousands of slips of paper were organized and catalogued in several buildings, with a new one having to be constructed every time the last one ran out of space.
Probably the most energetic of the early volunteers was William Chester Minor, of whom Murray once said “we could easily illustrate the last four centuries [of language] from his quotations alone.”
Largely unknown at the time was that Minor, an American Civil War army surgeon and keen lexicographer himself, was a patient in a British hospital for the criminally insane, having shot a man he mistakenly believed was about to rob him. He had moved to England after the War, having gotten into a spot of bother relative to his mental instability and rather unsavory life in the States. The change of venue didn’t help much, though, and he resumed his delusional and libertine ways, culminating in a paranoid episode in which he shot George Merrett, the father of six, with a seventh on the way. He was ultimately adjudged insane, and sent to Broadmoor, where he lived out his days in relative comfort, on his army pension, and where he could indulge in the one love that never failed him, that of his considerable library, from whence, once he learned of the OED project, he obtained the information and examples for the tens of thousands of slips he submitted to Murray.
The OED is today regarded as the definitive historical record of the English Language. A second edition was published in twenty volumes in 1989, and a CD-version was released in 1992.
Work continues on a projected third edition, with no publication date yet announced.
I am the proud owner, thanks to my father, of a micrographically produced 2-volume edition of the 1933 printing, published in 1971, and titled The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Each page contains four pages of the original, with reduced font size to fit. It came with an excellent Bausch and Lomb magnifying glass, which I find I no longer need, because my eyesight is actually improving with age, and I don’t need glasses for close work such as needlepoint, cross-stitch, or deciphering the tiny type–an unexpected–and rare–benefit of growing old!
The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester, Harper, 1998, 256 pages: $12.99 hardcover, other formats available