By Simon Winchester.
New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 1998.
ISBN# 0-06-17596-6
242 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2005

This is the true story of two men, their relationship to one another, and the relationship of both to the Oxford English dictionary.

James Murray is an important early editor of the OED, and the man who brought out several of the early volumes, which were first published letter by letter in order. It was his plan of inviting the scholarly world and interested members of the public to submit slips of paper with relevant data to the editorial staff, documenting early and unusual uses of words which made the OED possible.

One of the most prolific and long-time contributors was Dr. W.C. Minor who was incarcerated in a mental hospital for the incurably insane, having murdered a man in London in 1872, the result of his dangerous paranoia.

Minor was a retired U.S. army officer, a physician with Union forces in the Civil War. Author Simon Winchester suggests that the evidence points to Minor’s experiences in the war, being forced to brand Irish deserters from the Union army, as causative of his mental state and the murder.

However, a man of significant means, appearing at least, not to be harmful and an American in England, Minor was allowed many privileges such as keeping another inmate as servant, having two cells to himself, allowed stores of fine wines and foods, and most importantly to this story, being allowed to accumulate a huge library of rare books.

When Murray put out his call for volunteer labor on the OED, Dr. Minor responded and over the next 30 years contributed more than 10,000 individual bits of valuable data, one of the most prolific and useful contributors of the unpaid volunteer workers.

Minor began his contributions in 1880 and it wasn’t until 1889 that James Murray learned of Minor’s situation. He visited him in the asylum and they became close, if not friends, in those more formal times, at least close co-workers. Murray even played a role in trying to get Minor released from his detention, but Minor’s constant paranoid behavior undercut such appeals until he was very elderly, weak and sick.

With meticulous and painstaking research Simon Winchester unpacks this story, detailing the circumstances of Dr. Minor’s murder of Irishman George Merrett in 1872, makes the case that Minor’s madness was rooted in the Civil War, and follows Minor’s extraordinary years in the mental asylum and his contributions to the OED.

He parallels that work with the story of James Murray’s brilliance as organizing editor and lexicographer of the astonishing OED.

In addition to doing detailed research on the inter actions of the two central figures and the last days each has on his own, Winchester tells a great deal about the building of the OED itself.

It was the inclusion of the long sections on the OED which troubled my sense of the coherence of this fascinating tale as being one single book. Is this the story of the lives of Murray and Minor and their acquaintanceship and work on the OED, or is this a less detailed history of the conception of and some linguistic examples of the OED? Unfortunately it is both in an uneasy relationship to one another.

Perhaps the tale of Minor/Murray, about which Winchester speaks with such power, authority and passion just wasn’t enough material for a book in itself. On this view the more general – and very interesting – material on the OED fluffs out the story of the two men.

In any case, piece by piece, bit by bit, chapter by chapter Winchester intelligently and with power and evidence tells his tale. My question is just about how unified and coherent it is as a whole.

Part of me wants to say – quit nitpicking. You’ve got a fascinating account -- put aside the question “of what” – which was interesting to read, informative, defended impeccably, which you couldn’t put down and from which you took much away.

Oh so true. Yet what I see as an unsettling mixture of two stories which don’t quite make ONE is disturbing. Despite that misgiving, I recommend the book to any serious readers, and especially the tale of the two curious and exceptional men and their relationship to each over the OED.

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett