My father used to refer to the dictionary as ‘the book of words’, and I read a fascinating but rather indigestible book on English dictionaries recently, but over the past few days I have been reading two much more accessible works on the great-grand daddy of all dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary or OED. They are a biography of James Murray, the venerable first editor, in Caught in the Web of Words by his grand-daughter, K M Elisabeth Murray; and The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester, about a prolific contributor to the first edition.
They cover some of the same ground, because The Surgeon of Crowthorne is a semi-factual account of the relationship between Murray and Dr W C Minor, an American army surgeon confined in Broadmoor as a criminal lunatic after a motiveless murder in Lambeth in 1872. The first edition (and, indeed, subsequent ones) was informed by an appeal to the general public to send in examples of words from all sources, illustrating their use at different periods and in different contexts – and Minor was the most prolific of these amateur contributors, offering ‘scores of thousands’ of ‘slips’ in all. He worked with great dedication and order, and was particularly useful to the editors of the OED as he worked more or less in parallel with them, providing examples of word use almost to order, just as they were about to consider that portion of the alphabet. Winchester gives us quite a lot of background on both Minor and Murray, so we hear about a childhood in Malaya with missionaries, medical training at Yale, and a commission (with the Union forces) in the American Civil War on the one hand, and a lowland Scot from a small town merchant’s family, who became a schoolteacher and a then a clerk at a bank, only following philology as a hobby.
Minor’s life was extremely sad, and he did not achieve freedom until extreme old age, when he was ill and weak, having been sent back to the United States after over 30 years in Broadmoor. Winchester makes parallels with Murray, almost imprisoned in his ‘scriptorium’, a corrugated metal shed, first at Mill Hill School, then in his garden at Oxford, utterly surrounded by books and dedicated to the Dictionary. But, of course, Murray was free, a volunteer for this glorious drudgery.
His grand-daughter’s biography of him is very full, and has a great deal - too much, to my mind - on the negotiations with the Delegates of the Oxford University Press and his daily tribulations, and not enough on the words themselves. But it is an astonishing story - decades of selfless devotion to the Dictionary, which for many years actually cost Murray a lot of money, and brought little renown. Estimates of how long it would take were always wildly wrong. Negotiations started in the 1870s, work was hard underway by the end of the decade, and yet the OED was not complete when Murray died in 1915. It was eventually completed in 1928 - when the cycle of supplements began, before a second edition was produced in 1989.
Murray was a truly extraordinary man, self taught, deeply religious and utterly unselfish, as well as immensely erudite. But the facts that stay vividly with me are that the Post Office gave him a pillar box outside his house in Oxford specially for the Dictionary, and that he learned late in life to ride a bicycle - but could only dismount by deliberately falling off! Illustrations to the post today are of Johnson's famous definition of 'lexicographer' as a harmless drudge, and the OED's of 'dictionary'.