The Professor and the Madman
by Simon Winchester
HarperCollins, $20.00 pp., 240
The work which eventually became known as the Oxford English Dictionary had a checkered early history. Proposals for it were first put forward in 1857; the following year the Philological Society of London began making arrangements for the publication of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (which was to remain its official name until 1933). But the scale of the undertaking soon proved much greater than anyone had foreseen. There were complications, setbacks, problems with publishers, and it was not until 1879, after Oxford University Press had taken over and endorsed the appointment of James Murray as editor, that the project was set on a firm footing.
From the outset, one thing was made clear. The new dictionary was to be a work compiled “on historical principles.” It was to provide not only definitions and derivations, but the life histories of words—a record of their earliest appearance in the language, and of meanings they had subsequently acquired or lost. And this was to be accomplished by means of quotations, drawn from the widest possible range of printed sources.
The amount of reading that was going to be called for was plainly enormous. Even in the heady early days it was recognized that the task could only be undertaken with outside assistance, which in practice meant unpaid volunteers; and one of the first things James Murray decided, once he had got a grip on the job, was that he had to drum up those volunteers in much greater numbers. The appeal he drafted was addressed “to the English-speaking and English-reading public.” It was sent out, partly in the form of a press release, partly as a leaflet distributed by libraries and bookstores.
Among those who replied was a Dr. W.C. Minor, who gave his address as “Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.” It isn’t known exactly when he first got in touch with Murray—probably in 1880 or 1881—but what is beyond dispute is that he was to become one of the dictionary’s most valued contributors. His replies to the editors’ queries were neat, prompt, and extensive: thousands upon thousands of them found their way into the final text. But who was he? Although Crowthorne was only an hour away by train, it proved impossible to get him to come to Oxford, and eventually Murray, who was curious to meet him, decided he would have to make the journey to Crowthorne instead.
In the preface to The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester gives an account of the two men’s first meeting. Arriving at Crowthorne station, Murray was driven in a landau to an imposing mansion, and ushered into a study. It was only then that he learned that Broadmoor was an asylum for the criminally insane, and that Minor (whom he was then taken to see) was a convicted murderer who had been incarcerated there since 1872.
But as the greatest of Murray’s predecessors, Samuel Johnson, once observed, “seldom any splendid story is wholly true …