By Chet Yarbrough
Simon Winchester’s book begins with a “bang” from a hand gun brandished by Dr. William Chester Minor, an American civil war surgeon who lived through the “battle of the Wilderness”. An innocent Englishman is shot dead by Minor in a small town near London. Therein lies a tale of an odd couple that become cornerstones for the Oxford Dictionary.
Winchester begins a brief history of the Oxford Dictionary in “The Professor and the Madman”. Dr. Minor is “…the Madman” with “The Professor…” appearing later.
Winchester reveals how this intelligent young physician pitches his fit of mayhem. He describes how Minor’s madness isolates him (after trial) in an English insane asylum. Minor, a Yale graduate, uses his incarceration (when not trapped in his paranoid delusions) to read books.
After this beginning, Winchester recites early histories of dictionaries dating back to the 17th century. He touches on the first Oxford dictionary created by Samuel Johnson in 1755.
In 1857, over 100 years after Johnson’s dictionary, a fellow named Richard Trench gives a speech at the London Library to suggest a new, more comprehensive Oxford Dictionary. This monumental undertaking is estimated to take two years by its first editor; it takes over sixty.
Methodology for the dictionary’s creation relies on past dictionaries and volunteers. Volunteers are recruited via flyers and letters asking for readers to glean words and quotes from books written in particular periods of time; for example, books written from 1200 to 1300.
W.C. Minor receives one of these flyers at the asylum. He responds and becomes an important source of information for the Dictionary. He establishes correspondence with editors of the compendium and begins delivering some of the detail needed to complete the book for publication. It gives his life a focus that partially mitigates his madness; at least until he cuts his penis off.
Perhaps the most productive editor of the dictionary is Professor James Murray. He takes the helm 22 years after Trench suggested the idea. Five years after Murray’s appointment, the first publication is made. It covers A through Ant in 352 pages.
Winchester goes on to describe the odd first meeting between Minor and Murray. Murray has no idea that Minor is in an insane asylum. Minor is housed 60 miles from Murray’s editing facility, the Scriptorium. Several versions of the meeting are reported.
Minor is eventually repatriated to the United States (interestingly because of Winston Churchill’s intervention) but he dies ignominiously. Ironically, according to Winchester, the source of W.C. Minor’s story is George Merrett’s descendents (the murder victim’s family).
The Oxford English Dictionary (otherwise known as the OED) was finally completed in 1927, nearly 70 years after its conception.