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A Tale of Two Wordsmiths
(AP Online; 10/22/98)
By HILLEL ITALIE Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK (AP) You could call them logophiles, those who are passionate
about words. Or logologists, those who are scientific about words. Or
logolepts, those who are maniacal about words.
You could call them two of the great logolepts ever to dabble in and with
the English language.
Dr. James Murray was a tailor's son from the Scottish border who as a young
man tried to teach Latin to cows and for fun memorized hundreds of Gypsy
phrases. Dr. William Chester Minor was a Connecticut surgeon traumatized by
the Civil War, convicted of murder in London and institutionalized in a
two-room, book-lined cell.
They both lived in turn-of-the-century England and they knew each other
well. They corresponded by mail for years. They were friends even after
Murray learned that Minor was an inmate, not a doctor, at the Broadmoor
Asylum for the Criminally Insane. They were friends even after Minor
imagined attackers crawling through the asylum floor.
And they were collaborators on a historic project. Murray, an old schoolmate
of the real-life model for Henry Higgins, was supervising the compilation
of the Oxford English Dictionary. Minor, whose confinement did not keep him
from owning a handsome collection of 17th- and 18th-century literature, was
his most dependable contributor.
"They are THE odd couple, aren't they?" said author Simon Winchester, who
tells the story of Minor and Murray in his best-selling biography, "The
Professor and the Madman."
"They're part of this great tradition of enthusiastic amateurs, people who
made great contributions to all sorts of things. They were people with time
on their hands and their enthusiasms would carry them away."
Winchester, a New Yorker who has written about everything from travel in
the Far East to imprisonment in Argentina, said he got the idea for his
latest work right at home in the bathtub, to be exact. The author was
relaxing with a good book (on lexicography, of course) and came upon a brief
reference to Minor. He sat straight up in the tub and decided there was a
story to tell.
"The Professor and the Madman" not only has made The New York Times' best-
seller list, but has attracted both Mel Gibson and "La Femme Nikita"
director Luc Besson for a possible film adaptation. The HarperCollins
publication is even being used in a joint advertisement with the Oxford
University Press, with both biography and dictionary (the former selling at
$20, the latter at $995) promoted under the tabloid slogan: "Madman
"I'm unhappy with it," Winchester said. "It just seems so uncharacteristic
of the Oxford University Press.
"I remember a meeting we went to and sort of threw that name out, `Madman
Special,"' Oxford publisher Laura Brown said with a laugh. "If you call a
book something in draft it starts to take on a life of its own."
Murray and Minor's friendship was a highlight of one of the longest, most
cerebral quests in English history the quest for the ultimate catalog of
the English language. It was a quest that would involve everyone from
Jonathan Swift to Samuel Johnson, a quest for which the Oxford dictionary
provided the voluminous conclusion.
Ever since the 17th century, Swift, John Dryden and other British
intellectuals had been looking to trim a language that seemed to grow as
freely as an English garden. There was no agreement on how words should be
spelled, used or pronounced. No one even knew how many words were out there.
A language mastered in print by Shakespeare and Milton still followed the
uncertain rules of oral culture.
Would-be trimmers multiplied but the first great one did not emerge until
1755, when Dr. Johnson published his dictionary. For several years, Johnson
had been tracking down every possible usage for thousands of words he found
more than a hundred just for "take" and added often-acerbic definitions.
At least one listing, for "oats," soon became widely quoted: "A grain which
in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the
But Johnson's dictionary was more literary than scholarly, and many
continued to insist upon a reference guide that served as a catalog rather
than a critical review. That would begin more than a century after Johnson's
publication. Its working title: "The Big Dictionary."
"There was a famous speech at the London Library made in 1857 by Richard
Chenevix Trench, who was an author and a cleric and believed the English
language had a kind of divine purpose, to be spread around the world,"
Winchester said. "He addressed the deficiencies in dictionaries which had
come out before. People were amazed by the complexity of Johnson's
dictionary but they realized there were hundreds and hundreds of words
Johnson had overlooked."
The Big Dictionary had the scale of a great public works project and, like
so many public works projects, it ran longer than planned. The originators
of the Oxford dictionary including the grandson of Romantic poet Samuel
Coleridge thought they could wrap everything up within a few years. It would
end up taking 70.
"Every time they made an assumption about having limits on the number of
meanings for a word, they found the limits were being breached," Winchester
said. "It was as if they discovered that behind each soldier they were
fighting there were a hundred more."
By the late 1870s Coleridge was dead and Murray, an esteemed teacher and
philologist, had been called in to edit. Minor, meanwhile, was an unstable
ex- surgeon who had murdered a stranger on the streets of London and had
been committed to Broadmoor, less than 40 miles from Oxford.
Soon after starting his new job Murray issued an Appeal for Volunteers, an
eight-page pamphlet that made a plea for specialists in 18th-century
literature. Minor, who kept up with events in the literary world, wrote to
offer his help.
In the beginning, Murray simply thought of Minor as the prolific, highly
organized researcher whose letters had the return address "Broadmoor,
Crowthorne, Berkshire." Murray knew of the Broadmoor asylum, but assumed
that Minor, whom he had publicly praised, was the medical officer.
"This continued for years," Murray wrote to a friend, "until one day,
between 1887 and 1890, the late Mr. Justin Windsor, Librarian of Harvard
College, was sitting in my Scriptorium and remarked, `You have given great
pleasure to Americans by speaking as you do ... of poor Dr. Minor. This is
a very painful case."'
Poor Dr. Minor?
No official record exists of their first meeting, but over the next two
decades these white-bearded companions saw each other dozens of times, with
Murray always checking on Minor's mood before boarding the train from
Oxford. On nice days, they would walk back and forth across the Broadmoor
terrace. When the weather turned cold they would commune in Minor's cell,
enjoying tea and cake and the warmth of the fireplace, special privileges
granted by the asylum.
Before losing both his mental and physical strength, W.C. Minor contributed
thousands of listings to the Oxford dictionary, entries on everything from
"art," "buckwheat" and "brick-tea" to "catamaran," "cholera" and
"cutcherry." He also developed a meticulous system of documentation still
used by researchers today.
"He would create these indexes in his prison cell," Winchester said. "They
knew they could rely on Minor to provide quotations, showing how a word was
used. Not only was his work impeccable but he had this uncanny ability to
produce words when they were needed."
The dictionary was completed in 1928, but neither Minor nor Murray lived to
see it. Murray, knighted in 1908, died seven years later, at age 78. Minor
passed away at age 85, in 1920. He had been increasingly ill and
ill-tempered since the morning in 1902 when he sharpened a knife on a
whetstone, performed an unspeakable act of surgery and shouted to officials
that he had "injured" himself.
"I was on a train from Oxford to London with two elderly women,
lexicographers with the Oxford University Press, and I was talking about
what Minor had done," Winchester said.
"Everybody else in the railway carriage was listening to this conversation.
When I got to the bit about what he had done to himself, everyone was amazed
and gasped, except for these two women. They both said, in unison,
"They knew about `peotomy,' which is the word for when someone else performs
that procedure, and they came up with a new word. One of them said to me,
"`Autopeotomy"' doesn't exist, but it will if you write it in your book."'
The word appears on page 193.
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© 1998 Peter Langston