Saturday, 26 September 2009

The Captain and The Dictionary

Today we take for granted The Oxford English Dictionary and just assume it suddenly arrived in it's current 20 odd volumes.The story behind the dictionary is too long for this post,but nevertheless I will try to summarize key elements behind it's creation.
The idea behind the dictionary was postulated at a meeting of the Philological Society in 1857 in London.Prior to this there had not been a truly satisfactory and comprehensive dictionary of the English Language.
Academics not withstanding,work did not actually begin on the creation of the dictionary for some years.The task of collation of words and the coordination of the project was put in the hands of an Oxford academic called Dr James Murray,a Presbyterian Scot from the borders town of Hawick.
It would take some seventy years before the first edition was published in 1928.
To undertake such a vast enterprise Murray advertised throughout the English Speaking World for volunteer lexicographers,to submit regular words together with in depth meanings.
Over time Murray began to be aware of a particular contributor who clearly was extremely well educated and provided him with a considerable amount of contributions,which to this day are more often than not still in the dictionary.
This compiler ultimately became a good friend of Dr Murray.
His name was Dr W.C.Minor,an American who had been an Assistant Surgeon during the Civil War,rising to the rank of Captain in the Union Army.
Dr Minor's contributions were immense over the years,which made Dr Murray wonder how he had so much time to commit to the dictionary.
What Murray was unaware of was that Minor was an inmate at Broadmoor in Berkshire;an institution for the criminally insane.
He had been incarcerated there for the murder of a man in the slums of London and because there was absolutely no motive for his actions,he was certified insane to be retained 'at Her Majesty's pleasure'.
Not being a particularly balanced individual in the first place,joining the Union Army and being attendant at The Battle of the Wilderness,seems to have tipped him over the edge.
Suffice to say that one of the most important contributors to the world's greatest dictionary,was a criminal lunatic!


  1. Wow! That's a surprise! Seriously! But I think we should give him some credits, he has done a very great job indeed! At some point, behind that lunatic minds, there was his brilliant side :)

  2. That really interesting; I've never heard all this before. The dictionary is most definitely valuable.

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