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The mad, murderous origins of the Oxford English Dictionary

See C for Crazy, F for Friendship and I for Insane. The incredible story of a professor who collaborated with an incarcerated murderer to create the first edition of the OED, has now been made into a film.

hollywood Updated: May 05, 2019 18:00 IST
Arnav Das Sharma
Arnav Das Sharma
Hindustan Times
Dictionary,Oxford,OED
Mel Gibson and Sean Penn in a still from The Professor and the Madman. Gibson plays the former schoolteacher who edited the first edition; Penn is the mentally unstable former army surgeon who helped him put it together. (Vertical Entertainment)

Dictionaries themselves conjure up images of quiet reflection, of someone stooped over the tomes, magnifying glass in hand, pondering over a particular word and the variegated historical journey it must have had. But the history of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) can be described as anything but quiet, and was certainly not mundane.

It took roughly 70 years for the first edition of the Oxford Dictionary to be assembled, and those years saw the meeting of two men who, on the face of it, looked quite similar, but had lived vastly different lives. The story of these two men — James Murray and Dr William Chester Minor — are intertwined with the history of the OED, and together tell a compelling story of scholarship, violence, madness, poverty and an indelible love for words and their history.

On May 10, the story of these two men will play out on the silver screen, in a film titled The Professor and the Madman, starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn. The movie is an adaptation of the 1998 bestselling book, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, by the globe-trotting journalist Simon Winchester.

Birth of the OED

It is difficult to imagine today that until the 19th century, English did not have a complete dictionary. The only one existing till then was the 1755 dictionary compiled and edited by Samuel Johnson. In November 1857 — the year Delhi was brutally besieged by troops of the English East India Company — the members of the London Philological Society sat down to hear a paper by the Dean of Westminster, Richard Trench. Trench argued that the English system of preserving words was so inadequate that the task needed to be taken up from scratch; that what Britain needed more than ever was a worthy successor to Johnson’s dictionary. This speech gave birth to the Oxford Dictionary.

5 OF THE BEST MOVIES SET IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007); directed by Tim Burton; featuring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen
  • From Hell (2001), based on the Jack the Ripper murders, starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham
  • Great Expectations (1946), based on the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by David Lean
  • Mr Turner (2014), based on the life of the painter JMW Turner. Directed by Mike Leigh
  • Wilde (1997), based on the life of Oscar Wilde, starring Stephen Fry

But things took a drastic turn from hereon. The first editor of the project died unexpectedly, and the second devoted most of his time to frequenting the red light districts of Victorian England, debating socialism and cycling, rather than working on the dictionary itself. The project truly started when a little-known school teacher and philologist, James Murray, took over as editor. His first task was to advertise in all the leading newspapers of the day that the project was looking for ‘volunteers’ in the English-speaking world to send him quotations which would show how the meanings of words had changed over time.

Encountering Minor

It was this early instance of crowdsourcing that brought William Chester Minor onto the scene, and into the annals of history. An American who fought in the Civil War, Minor was an army surgeon. But while in the army, he was tasked with branding an Irish solder in the Union Army on the face with the letter ‘D’ for ‘Deserter’. Winchester argues that similar harsh conditions in the army and the violence of the Civil War may have played a part in Minor developing a case of severe dementia and paranoia. After the War, Minor emigrated to London, looking for a better climate to help his dementia. But an incident there would seal his fate.

One of the notorious, crime-infested areas in Victorian London was a place called Lambeth Marsh. A place rife with thieves, pimps and prostitutes, a place that seemed to have risen out of the pages of a Dickensian novel. Here, Minor — known to frequent red light districts — haunted by severe paranoia, shot a passerby named George Merrett, believing the man to be a thief when in reality he was just a working-class man from one of the London warehouses.

Minor was arrested and sent to Broadmoor, the infamous mental asylum at Crowthorne. But sustained by his army pension and good conduct, he received better treatment, a room, and was allowed to buy books. It was through this correspondence with booksellers that Minor got to know of Murray’s advertisement, and culling from his vast reading at the asylum, began to send to Murray quotations describing the wonderful journeys of several hundred words through the thick haze of history.

5 OF THE BEST BOOKS ON DICTIONARIES
  • Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (above)
  • The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Peter Gilliver
  • Kory Stamper’s Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries
  • The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, by David Skinner
  • The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, by Peter Gilliver, Edmund Weiner and Jeremy Marshall

Each book he read became a quotation, noted down on a slip of paper, and arranged in alphabetical order. These papers Minor would send Murray every week, for over 20 years.

In fact when Murray finally met Minor in 1891, in his asylum cell, the former realised that without Minor’s contribution, the OED would have had over four centuries of word-origins missing from its roster. Many words that Minor rescued came from his eccentric reading choices. Books of political philosophy gave him etymologies of words now used frequently, like ‘countenance’. From his reading of travel literature, particularly about India — Minor was born in Sri Lanka — he gave to the OED words like ‘guz’, which is basically an Indian measure of length.

Yet despite his good conduct, the authorities refused to let Minor out of Broadmoor. As the 1800s drew to a close and a more uncertain century dawned, James Murray sent dozens of letters to the government, and personally petitioned leading officers of the law to let Minor go, arguing that a mental asylum was no place for a man of his calibre. In the early 1900s, Minor’s condition deteriorated and he began to be plagued with nightmarish visions. One such was where he saw himself turned into a paedophile and in disgust, cut off his own penis.

Only in 1910 did Murray’s petitions succeed, when one reached a young home secretary with a penchant for cigars and whiskey, a man named Winston Churchill. Minor was let go and died at his home in 1922.

When we turn the pages of the OED — so common in our houses and on the internet now — it is impossible to notice the different threads of history that seem to bind it together. And residing somewhere in between the pages are still the echoes of these two remarkable men, a professor and a madman.

First Published: May 04, 2019 16:31 IST