The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines more than a half million words and it took more than seventy years to research and write the original “twelve tombstone-size volumes.” It is the gold standard of the English language.
On August 14, 1879, Scottish polymath James Murray was given the go-ahead by the Philological Society of England to begin the work of tracing the history of every single word in the English language and providing a definition faithful to its meaning. As the editor of the OED, he had the task of finding all the words as used in classical and standard written works in English. His historical starting point was the year 1150 AD.
Murray was a “self-educated country boy” from the Scottish Borders village of Denholm. He had to leave school at fourteen for lack of funds, but he continued learning on his own, with a special interest in etymology — “He was captivated by words and strange languages.”
Murray mastered Spanish, French, Catalan, Italian and Latin and, “to a lesser degree”, Portuguese, Vaudois, and Provençal, as well as other various dialects. He also acquired a working knowledge of Gaelic, Dutch, German, Danish, Slavonic and Russian. He knew Hebrew and Syriac well enough to sight read the Old Testament and picked up to a lesser degree Coptic, Phoenician and Arabic. He taught school and worked in a bank as an administrator in London, but his real passion was language.
By 1879, at the age of forty-two, James Murray began his real life’s work creating the Oxford English Dictionary. All eleven of his children lived to maturity and they, his wife, and eventually, grandchildren all helped in the project. He was permitted to use an iron shed on the property of the school where he taught, which he had outfitted with a thousand pigeon-holed rack to hold the quotations slips for the words.
Before long, the “scriptorium” was ready and the project was begun. Through the Philological Society he issued “An Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public” in Great Britain, America and the British Colonies, asking for a thousand readers for the next three years to supply him with good quotations, thus determining how various English words were used over the centuries. They were to avoid Bible Concordances, Shakespeare, and Edmund Burke — sources already combed.
Dictionary slips and their sorting became a major part of life for the Murray family. People from all over the world sent in slips with the desired information. Several sub-editors and the children sorted through them and into the pigeon holes they went. One of Murray’s sons provided 27,000 quotations on his own, according to the introduction in the first volume.
The entire story is amazing — the perseverance, erudition and dedication of Murray became legendary, as did some of the characters that sent in quotes. One of the best, most erudite and apparently brilliant contributors turned out to be a murderer from America, locked up in a prison for the criminally insane in England! (As recounted in “The Professor and the Madman” by Simon Winchester).
When William Chester Minor heard about the project, he heavily got involved with it. At that point in his life, the former American army surgeon was a patient at Broadmoor (an asylum). William had murdered a stranger named George Merrett in 1872 due to paranoia. The assailant thought that his victim had broken into his room. The court ruled that William was not guilty by reason of insanity, and he was sent to the psychiatric facility in Crowthorne, Berkshire.
In fact, William got a pension for his military service and was not adjudged to be dangerous. Therefore, he had access to comfortable housing and a plethora of books at the facility. This is why it is not surprising that he became one of the biggest contributors to the dictionary. He sent in more than 10,000 entries! It is true that the widowed Mrs. Merrett used to visit him and bring him books on his list. Even though Winchester’s writing suggests that they could have had an affair, the author did say he was unsure about this facet of the surgeon’s life.
Winchester further said this about the man— “Minor concentrated very hard, and some synapse(s) in his brain presumably fired in such a way as to eliminate his symptoms of schizophrenia.” All this time, James had no idea about William’s past. However, when he finally learned the truth, their relationship was unaffected. The lexicographer even described the “madman” as “a fine Christian gentleman, the same as myself.”
However, in 1902, William’s paranoia became worse. He had delusions wherein he was being abducted every night and was made to go as far as Istanbul to commit sexual assaults on children. Therefore, he cut off his own penis. By 1910, James campaigned for William’s release as well. Winston Churchill was the home secretary then and ordered that the patient be deported back to America.
There, William was admitted to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington D.C. (which is where his schizophrenia was diagnosed). He passed away in 1920 in Hartford, Connecticut. James had passed away in 1915 due to pleurisy. Up until that point, however, he continued to work hard on the dictionary come hell or high water. The year before his death, he was awarded an Oxford honorary doctorate. Moreover, despite being knighted for his efforts in 1908, James continued to be a relative outsider at the university.
After reading all the quotations sent in for a particular word, Murray would write the “concise, scholarly, accurate, and lovingly elegant definition for which the Dictionary is well known.” The task was enormously difficult but for thirty-five years Murray stuck to it till the day of his death.
The dictionary was completed after the two passed away, however, their contributions to the book cannot be ignored. Did you know that in the end, all the information was compiled in 10 volumes? There were 414,825 words that had been defined, and 1,827,306 citations were used to illustrate their meanings.
The magnificent story of this singular Christian lexicographer was finally told by Murray’s granddaughter K.M. Elizabeth Murray in “Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary,” (1977).
Words have meaning, but when a culture redefines the fixed understanding of words, demagogues take advantage of the uncertainty and chaos that results, to change the culture itself. We must be wary of the malleable ways that enemies of the original intent of words, deconstruct meaning, to the destruction of morality and truth.
Did you know that the book “The Professor and the Madman” was made into a movie with Mel Gibson and Sean Penn? The script was adapted from Simon Winchester’s book called ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words.’ (It was, however, renamed ‘The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary’ for the audiences in America and Canada).