Master Wordsmith, Madness and Oxford Dictionary

Dictionaries are part of every home. Today they are routine but few would know the fascinating, mysterious and extraordinary tale of unknown men, whose passion for the English language brought them together, albeit long distance and made possible the Oxford English Dictionary. Rajasthan Post unfolds this incredible tale

Dictionaries make our world of words so simple and clear. Today we do not think twice before opening up the Oxford Dictionary, when we get stuck with a new English word or a phrase.

But few probably know that the creation of this Oxford English Dictionary is a fascinating and mysterious tale of two extraordinary men. Their in-depth understanding of the language and its words and their uncanny, long-distance relationship, when the two never meet for long years, actually resulted in this most consulted book.

Oxford English Dictionary, one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters, took about 70 years to complete, beginning in 1857. Tens of thousands of brilliant people put in their brain to organize the English language in 414,825 precise definitions.
Until 17th Century, there was only a table of words. Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604, was the first single-language English dictionary ever published. It lists approximately 3000 words, defining each one with a simple and brief description.


At this time the English language was expanding – influenced by trade, travel and new innovations in the fields of arts and sciences. The ‘Table Alphabeticall’ was an attempt to explain ‘hard’ words – i.e. those unfamiliar to the common man.

Till 1857, England was not well-served by a dictionary. The French had it, the Italians had it but not the Englishmen. But Englishmen wanted to be different from the French and Italians. England’s dictionary makers had a political bent of mind as there was an imperial urge in the spread of the English language. The general mindset was that the English dictionary needed to be more democratic. And it had to be a dictionary created by the people and for the people.

These little known facts about the Oxford English Dictionary unfolded at the Jaipur Literature Festival held recently. An attentive audience lapped up author Simon Winchester’s fascinating stories at the Murder, Madness and Oxford English Dictionary session. Winchester is New York Times’ best selling author of The Professor and the Madman.

Winchester wrote the book in 1998 as The Surgeon of Crowthrone as Minor hailed from Crowthorne but it was retitled The Professor and The Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary in US and Canada.

The story goes that James Murray, a Scottish lexicographer, a former schoolteacher and bank clerk was the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary project. Murray did not go to any university but was fascinated by the English language. For creating the dictionary, he needed words, so he built a 56 pigeon-hole like wooden structure and anyone who loved the English language was asked to submit quotation through a four-page brochure, which was distributed in all libraries and book shops and asked the readers to read and seize a word and illustrate it.

His associate in creating the dictionary was Dr William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War. He completed his medicine from Yale. He served as a surgeon at the time of Battle of Wilderness, Virginia. He used to get incredibly distressed by seeing people’s injuries and tending to them.
He was asked to brand the army deserters on their cheeks. This precipitated his madness and he began behaving like an eccentric.
Minor shot and killed George Merrett in the early hours of Feb 17, 1872 morning on a gloomy Lambeth street.

Minor was in London to recuperate. Fate dealt its final blow to Merrett during his daily walk to work at Lambeth’s Red Lion Brewery.

Believing someone was trying to enter his rooms, Minor ran on to the street and shot Merrett, who happened to be walking away from him. Minor was found not guilty of the crime on reasons of insanity, but was given a life sentence at what was then called Boardmoor Asylum.

From there he wrote a touching letter to Merret’s wife, who then visited him in the asylum and brought him book. One day nestled in between the books, he found Murray’s brochure asking for words.

From his asylum cell, Minor began to send in contributions to the OED. He was a well-educated man and an avid reader, with a collection of rare antiquarian books which Broadmoor allowed him to keep in a second cell.

Scouring this literature for useful quotations came naturally to him and he worked in a very methodical manner. Upon reading a book, he would prepare a small pamphlet headed with the title of the book in question. He would then note interesting words or usages of words in an alphabetical list, followed by their relevant page number. He soon built up a collection of these word indexes, which allowed him to supply the dictionary editors with quotations that were very relevant to the words they were working on.

Like this, Minor went on to become one of the most important volunteer contributors to the OED.

On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray’s offer was regularly and mysteriously refused.

Thus the two men Murray and Minor, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence.

Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly 10,000 definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray went to visit him.

It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane — and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.


Winchester’s tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and their passionate love for the English language, will now be turned into a movie by Hollywood actor Mel Gibson. The book’s rights was bought by Gibson’s Icon Production in 1998. In August , 2016, it was announced that Farhad Safinia, was to direct an adaptation starring Gibson as Murray and Sean Penn as Minor.

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