Madness, by definition The Oxford English Dictionary was an insane idea: to gather all words in the language and the story of each. Journalist Simon Winchester unlocks that craziness in his new book.

October 07, 1998|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SUN STAFF

The Oxford English Dictionary is the biggest unfinished book in the world. It is also probably the only major reference work brought into being with the significant help of a raving lunatic.

An American lunatic, at that.

The first edition of the OED, published in 1928, defined 414,825 English words. The second edition, in 1989, defined more than half a million. Since then, about 15,000 additional words -- some new, some overlooked -- have been tallied. The third edition, scheduled for 2005, will include all these plus whatever other words are discovered or invented in the meantime.

Because the English language is a work in progress, an ever-expanding universe of ideas, meaning and nuance, labor on the OED never ends. Nor does the dictionary, much as its editors try, ever totally encompass its subject.

The original compilers probably undercounted the vocabulary of the language by nearly 50 percent, according to British journalist Simon Winchester, who may have found the best story of his career in the OED and its history, a story he has put into a new book titled "The Professor and the Madman" (HarperCollins, $22).

Winchester's stroke of good fortune came, as he tells it, "in my bath, reading a book on lexography." (No, it's not his usual bathroom reading.) He came across a reference to Dr. William Chester Minor, the most prolific contributor of published quotations to the OED.

The quotations -- gleaned from books or periodicals published in English throughout the centuries -- were solicited by OED editors about 20 years after the project was launched in 1857. Millions flowed in from all over the United Kingdom. The quotations are meant to illustrate how the defined words were used over time, how their meanings changed, and to fix, to the extent possible, when the word first appeared in the written language.

The quotations are considered vital to the dictionary's purpose. The first edition contained 1.8 million of them, on average more than four for each word defined.

Minor's contribution was unmatched. Over more than three decades he sent 170,000 quotations to the book's editor, the erudite and indefatigable James Murray. All of Minor's were found to be legitimate. About 10,000 were used, more than any of the dictionary's other contributors.

Editor Murray developed a natural curiosity about this volunteer, whose letters arrived from the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire. The two men maintained a polite, professional correspondence for nearly two decades, but every attempt Murray made to meet Dr. Minor was deflected. Nor would he come to Oxford, where the work on the dictionary was being done.

Eventually the two men met, but not before Murray learned why Minor would not visit Oxford: He was locked up in the Asylum for Criminal Lunatics at Broadmoor. And for good reason: One night in 1872, in a fit of delusional paranoia (he believed he was being persecuted by Irishmen) Minor murdered an innocent man in the London slum of Lambeth, a still down-at-heel neighborhood across the Thames from Westminster.

He wound up spending 38 years in Broadmoor before being released to his brother and installed in St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Time on his hands

Minor, originally from Connecticut, had been a Union Army physician during the Civil War. It was thought the violence severed his grasp on reality. He was confined briefly in the United States, then released. He went to Europe to rest and recuperate, but his illness overtook him again.

At the asylum, because he was rich, a gentleman, by the Victorian standards of his time, he was given two connecting cells, allowed to pay other inmates to work for him and permitted to purchase books, which he did, in great number.

When he heard the call from Oxford for volunteers -- issued in newspaper ads, pamphlets, literary magazines -- he signed on. So he was a lunatic. At least he had books, an inclination for bookish work, and, of course, all the time in the world.

Winchester's account of the interplay between Minor and Murray is interesting. The book has sold well in England, and recently climbed onto the New York Times best-seller list.

In fact, that success has prompted the Oxford press to offer a sale: a "Madman Special," offering the 20-volume Second Edition of the OED for only $995. The regular price is $3,000.

Winchester's book tells two stories. The first is of Murray and Minor, their relationship and separate lives. Murray was a self- taught philologist (a genius with words) who accepted the responsibility of implementing the great idea for the dictionary. The sad Dr. Minor lived his life taunted by violent delusions and sexual fantasies. He was dangerous, especially to himself: He amputated his own penis with a penknife in a vain attempt to end his sexual delusions. It was thought his constructive work for the dictionary may have bettered his lot somewhat.

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