The making of the Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary, which attempts to encompass the whole English language, was and is an epic achievement.

Commissioned in 1857, begun in 1879 and completed in 1926, it consisted of 12 volumes containing 414,825 words and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations, most of them in type set by hand.  New editions and updates of the OED continue to this day.

This unflagging commitment to a purely cultural project, of no monetary or military value, is truly remarkable.  It is like the construction of the medieval cathedrals that were begun with the knowledge they would take a century or more to complete.

I learned about the background of the OED by reading Simon Winchester’s book THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1998, which my friend Jan Hickman gave me.

The professor was James Murray, the chair of the committee overseeing the compilation of the dictionary.  He was a Scot who dropped out of school because of poverty at age 14, but was respected as an expert on philology, having taught himself multiple ancient and modern languages, including Roma, the gypsy dialect.

Because of the immensity of the project, the OED depended on volunteers to contribute definitions and examples of word usage.

One of the most prolific volunteers was one Dr. W.C. Minor, who submitted tens of thousands of definitions and turned out to be an inmate of an asylum for the criminally insane. He had murdered an innocent man whom he thought was part of a plot to assassinate him.  Murray liked and respected Minor, and visited him regularly.

Minor’s distinctive contribution was to collect centuries-old books and read them through, not out of interest in the content, but simply to find early usages of words and how the definition would change.

By day, he was a scholar,  By night, he felt he was being tortured by enemies coming out of the walls and floor.  His performance, under the circumstances, was heroic.

Winchester remarked that it is too bad that mental illness was not understood back then as it is now.  But if Minor had lived 50 or 100 years later, he might have been subjected to lobotomies, electric shock treatments or mind-altering drugs. We still do not know to what extent mental illness is biological in nature and to what extent it is due to life experiences.

Instead his keepers treated him kindly and simply prevented him from wandering off and tried to prevent him from harming himself or others.  Of course good treatment was encouraged by the fact that his family was immensely rich.

I put down the book with increased respect for these Victorian men—their strength of character, their devotion to learning, their determination to carry through what they had committed to do.  I also appreciated the great individual dictionary makers—Samuel Johnson in 18th century England and Noah Webster in the 19th century USA.

What project could be started today that people would still be committed to carrying on a century or more from now?

LINKS

Simon Winchester’s website.

Blog | Oxford English Dictionary.

Contribute to the OED | Oxford English Dictionary.

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