Book: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

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catchword (kæ·t∫wd). [f. CATCH- 3 b + WORD.]
1. Printing. The first word of the following page inserted at the right-hand lower corner of each page of a book, below the last line. (Now rarely used.)
2. A word so placed as to catch the eye or attention; spec. a. the word standing at the head of each article in a dictionary or the like;
1879 Directions to Readers for Dict., Put the word as a catchword at the upper corner of the slip. 1884 Athenæum 26 Jan. 124/2 The arranging of the slips collected…and the development of the various senses of every Catchword.


The two small closely printed sheets that came as an addendum to Murray’s first letter turned out to be a set of meticulously worded instructions. When his morning mail was delivered by the ward staff that day, Minor must have fallen upon this one envelope eagerly, reading and rereading its contents. But it was not the content alone that fascinated him: A list of rules for dictionary helpers was not the cause of his excitement.

It was the simple fact that they had been sent to him in the first place. The letter from James Murray represented, in Minor’s view, a token of the further forgiveness and understanding that Eliza Merrett’s visits to him had already suggested. The invitation seemed a long-sought badge of renewed membership in the society from which he had been so long estranged. By being sent these sheets of rules he was, he felt, being received back into a corner of the real world. A corner that admittedly was still housed in a pair of cells in an alien madhouse—but one that had firmly forged links to the world of learning, and connections with a more comfortable reality.

After a decade of languishing in the dark slough of imprisonment, intellectual isolation, and remove, Minor felt that at last he was being hoisted back up onto the sunlit uplands of scholarship. And with what he saw as this reenlistment in the ranks, so Minor’s self-worth began, at least marginally, to reemerge, to begin seeping back. From the little evidence that survives in his medical records, he appears to have started recovering his confidence and even his contentment, both with every moment that he spent reading Murray’s acceptance letter, and then when he prepared to embark on his self-set task.

For a while at least he seemed truly happier. Even the sternly worded Victorian ward notes of the day hint that the temper of this usually suspicious, broody, prematurely elderly-looking middle-aged man (he was now approaching fifty) had somehow started to turn. His personality was undergoing, even if only for a short while, a sea change—and all because, at long last, he had something valuable to do.

Yet in its very value lay a problem, as Minor saw it. The doctor swiftly came to realize, and was daunted by the realization, the simple fact that this great work’s immense potential value to history, to posterity, and to the English-speaking world meant that it had to be done properly. Murray’s papers had explained that the dictionary was all about the gathering of hundreds of thousands of quotations. It was a task that was almost unimaginably vast. Could it be done, from an asylum cell?

Minor was both wise enough to understand and ask himself the question (since he knew well where he was, and why he was there) and then, in a partial answer, to applaud Murray for having taken the right approach to the work on which he was about to embark. Minor’s own love of books and literature gave him some knowledge of dictionaries, and an appreciation of what was good and what not so good about those that had already been published. So on reflection he decided that he very much wanted to work for the project, and to be a part of it—not solely because it would give him something worthwhile to do, which was his first reason, but mainly because in his opinion Murray’s plan for doing it was so self-evidently right.

But Murray’s plan meant that there was clearly going to be much more to his cellbound duties than the mere enjoyment of a blissful and leisured romp through the history of published English literature. Minor needed now to pay absolutely scrupulous regard to what he read, to trawl religiously for whatever happened to be needed by Murray’s team, and eventually to select from the cod of his net the very best possible entries to send away to be included in the book.

Murray’s notes showed him how best this might be done. The quotations, said the editor’s first page, were to be written on half sheets of writing paper. The target word—the “catchword,” as Murray liked to call it—was to be written at the top left. The crucial date of the quotation should be written just below it, then the name of the author and title of the cited book, the page number, and finally, the full text of the sentence being quoted. Preprinted slips had already been prepared for some books that were important, well known, and likely to be used a great deal, familiar works by such as Chaucer, Dryden, Hazlett, and Swift—readers assigned to these books needed only write to Mill Hill to have some sent; otherwise, Murray asked them to please write out their own slips in full, arrange them alphabetically, and send them on to the Scriptorium.

All this was simple enough. But, everyone wanted to ask—just what words were to be sought out?

Murray’s early rules were clear and unambiguous: Every word was a possible catchword. Volunteers should try to find a quotation for each and every word in a book. They should perhaps concentrate their efforts on words that struck them as rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar, or used in a peculiar way; but they should also look assiduously for ordinary words as well, providing that the sentence that included it said something about the use or meaning of the word. Special attention also needed to be paid to words that seemed to be new or tentative, obsolete or archaic, so that the date could be used to help fix the moment of their introduction into the language. All that, Murray hoped, was surely plain enough.

But then again, asked would-be readers—how many quotations should be supplied for each word? “As many as convenient,” Murray wrote back, especially where different contexts tended either to explain differences in the meaning or helped to illustrate the subtle variations in a particular word’s usage. The more quotation slips that came in to the iron shed he had built in Mill Hill, the better: He assured readers that he had an ample supply of assistants to sort them, and that his floors had been especially strengthened to hold them.

(More than two tons of slips of papers had already come in from Coleridge and Furnivall’s first efforts, Murray added. But he didn’t allow as to how many of them had been nibbled at by mice or ruined by damp, nor did he reveal that one batch was found in a baby’s bassinet, or that a load of slips beginning with the letter I had been left in a broken-bottomed hamper in an empty vicarage, or that the entire letter F had been accidentally sent off to Florence, or that thousands of slips were so poorly handwritten that, Murray reported to a friend, it would have made for easier reading if they had been written in Chinese.)

The second sheet of notes seemed to Minor at first to offer rather more practical, if much more prosaic, help. It first made clear that Murray had a fund from which he could repay the postage to those volunteers who sent packages of slips but could not afford to do so; and it asked that the packages be sent to Mill Hill by book post, with their ends unsealed, so that Murray didn’t have to pay fines for those that had been shut with even the tiniest bit of adhesive (forbidden by Post Office regulations).

Many early readers turned out to be dreadfully confused; they simply did not understand the scope of their allotted task. For example, asked a couple of them, Did every single use of the word the within any one book require an illustrative quote? There would be tens of thousands from any volume, before any of the substantive words were even begun. And further, wailed one of the women readers, what if one had plowed through all 750 pages of a volume, as she just had, and found not a single rare word to extract?

Murray’s notes offer a tolerant and genial-enough response to this kind of complaint, though a faint sense of his Calvinist asperity glimmers between the lines. No, he spoke through moderately gritted teeth, there was really no need to offer scores of illustrations for definite articles and prepositions, unless the circumstances turned out to be very strange. And no, no, no! books were not to be scoured for rare words alone—he had to remind volunteers of this fact time and again. Readers must find and note all and any words that seemed interesting, or that were quoted in interesting and signifying ways or in ways that were good, apt, or pithy.

As an example of the dangers of the process so far, he said, he had received no fewer than fifty quotes for the word abusion (which means “perversion of the truth”), but had had only five for the much more common word abuse.

“My editors have to search for precious hours for quotations for examples of ordinary words, which readers disregarded, thinking them not worthy of including,” he wrote. Think simple, Murray kept insisting: Think simple.

And then, half exasperated that he evidently still hadn’t been clear enough, he laid down a distilled version of his instruction, a golden rule, a sentence that was to become the dictionary readers’ epigraph. He wanted readers simply to be able to say: “This is a capital quotation for, say, heaven, or half, or hug, or handful; it illustrates the meaning or use of the word; it is a suitable instance for the Dictionary.” Follow that kind of thinking, Murray insisted, and you will not go too far wrong.


William Minor read and clearly understood all of this. He looked about his library-cell, scanning the volumes in the astonishing collection that he had already accumulated over the previous ten years. He took out the list of books that had come with Murray’s original pamphlet. He would see first if he had any on his shelves that might in time become useful.

All of a sudden his books, which had hitherto been merely a fond decoration and a means of letting his mind free itself from the grim routines of Broadmoor life, had become his most precious possession. For the time being at least he could set aside his imaginings about the harm that people were trying to inflict on him and his person: It was instead his hundreds of books that now needed to be kept safe, and away from the predators with whom he believed the asylum to be infested. His books, and his work on the words he found in them, were about to become the defining feature of his newly chosen life. For the next twenty years he would do almost nothing at Broadmoor except enfold himself and his tortured brain in the world of his books, their writings, and their words.

He was maverick enough, original-minded enough, however, to realize that he could do better than simply follow Murray’s orders to the letter. Given his peculiar position, his leisure, his library, he could do more, do otherwise. It took him some days of pondering exactly how he might best serve the project; but after some weeks of thinking he came up with what he thought was the best way to tackle the task. He made a decision. He took down from his shelves the first of his books, and laid it open flat on his reading desk.

We cannot be sure which book it was. For sake of illustration, though, let us say the first volume, and which we know he had and used, was a leather-bound, gold-and-marble-edged translation of a French book called Complete Woman, by one Jacques du Boscq. Published in London in 1639, it had been translated by a man identified only as “N.N.”

His arguments for starting with this in particular, and indeed for reading it at all, were many. It was a good seventeenth-century work, it was obscure and exotic, it was filled no doubt with strange and amusing words. After all, Murray had exhorted his volunteers to examine this specific period of literary history: “The seventeenth century, with so many more writers, naturally shows still more unexplored territory.” Du Boscq’s book, in its anonymous translation, fitted the bill splendidly.

So Minor took from a drawer four sheets of white paper and a bottle of black ink, and he selected a pen with the very finest nib. He folded the paper into a quire, a booklet eight pages thick. Then, with perhaps one last glance down from his cell window at the lush countryside below, he settled in to read his chosen book, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, with slow and infinitely measured care. As he did so, he began a routine that he had planned during his early days of preparation.

Each and every time he found a word that piqued his interest he wrote it down, in tiny, almost microscopic letters, in its proper position in the quire he had made.

The unique manner of his procedure was soon to become a hallmark of Minor’s astonishing accuracy and eye for detail. His work would win the admiration and awe of all who were later to see it; even today the quires preserved in the dictionary archives are such as to make people gasp.

Let us choose as an example the moment when he came across the word buffoon. He was first struck by the significance of its appearance, in a suitably illustrative sentence, on du Boscq’s page 34. He promptly wrote it down in his tiny, perfectly neat, perfectly legible handwriting, on the first page of his blank booklet. He wrote it in the first column, and decided to place the word and its page number in the column about a third of the way down.

The placement was precise, and it was carefully chosen. The reason for this was Minor’s certainty that sooner or later he would find another interesting word beginning with the same letter, b; that there was a very good chance it would have to be put before buffoon and only a very much slimmer chance that it would need to be put after (because with buffoon’s second letter being u, there were only three possibilities—finding a further word or words whose second letter was again u, or one with the only other legitimate second letters, w—with only one word, bwana—or y).

Sure enough, a few pages later he came across the interesting word balk, with a nice quotation, and so deserving to be entered in the quire. He placed it on the list above buffoon, but with enough space in the event that another b word came along whose second letter was somewhere in the alphabet between the new a and the old u. Five pages further on he then sighted with some pleasure the word blab—a word of the very kind he had anticipated—and so in it went, levered into the space that he had so artfully retained below balk and well above buffoon.

And thus did the wordlist for the first of Doctor Minor’s cellful of books begin—word after word after word, each one with its spelling exact, its location in the quire perfectly appropriate, the page number where it was to be found in the source-book precise. From atom and azure, to gust and hearten, fix and foresight, the list went on and on. Some of the words occurred many times—feel, for example, which Minor recorded as cropping up on sixteen of du Boscq’s pages, although some of these turned out to be feeling, either the gerund (as in “I can’t help feeling this way”), or the noun (as with “The feeling of which you speak is painful”).

It must have taken him many weeks, perhaps months, to complete this first word list. Perhaps it was well into the year 1883 by the time he had finished it. But even though fully four years had now elapsed since James Murray had sent out his first appeal pamphlet, and more than three years since the first nudge to American readers in the Athenaeum magazine, and a year, maybe two, since Minor had read one or other of the appeals and had decided to become involved, he still had not sent one single quotation slip down to the Scriptorium. For all the staff of the dictionary knew, he had lost interest, become overwhelmed, dropped out.

But nothing could have been further from the truth. Doctor Minor in fact had quite another plan of attack—a working method that turned out to be very different from that of all other volunteer readers, but that soon marked him as uniquely valuable in the making of the great dictionary.

For once he had completed the monumental task of writing his first word list from his first book, he replaced that volume and took down another. Perhaps his next was Francis Junius, The Painting of the Ancients, from 1638, or Thomas Wilson’s The Rule of Reason, from 1551. Or perhaps something quite different. It could have been any one of hundreds of books, for he had a prodigious collection, and it would be his practice to select one, then another, and then yet another and write a new word list for each one. One book might take him three months to complete, in the kind of detail he felt his distant editors would demand.

And so he would work away, day after day—the tiny spy window in his door clicking open and shut every hour or so from the outside as the Broadmoor attendants checked on the safety and the existence of their strange patient. He would be working hard, deep in thought and with rapt concentration: He would index and collect and collate words and sentences from each of the books, until his prison desk was heavy with the quires of paper, each one containing a master list of the indexed words from his eclectic, very valuable, and much valued little gem of a library.


Although we cannot be sure which of his books he read first, we do know the titles of some of the books that he did read. Most of them, it turns out, reflect his keenly forlorn interest in travel and history. One can only imagine how his poor mind must have raced, trapped as it was in his book-lined retreat on the top floor of his cell block. How frustrated and pinioned he must have felt, reading line after line of such books as the one by Thomas Herbert, written in 1634, titled A Relation of Some Yeares Travaile Begunne Anno 1626 into Afrique and the Greater Asia; one can only suspect how homesick Minor must have felt for Trincomalee (and his native girls) on reading and indexing Nicholas Lichfield’s 1582 translation of Fernão Lopez de Castanheda’s First Booke of the Historie of the Discoverie and Conquest of the East Indies.

One by one his collection of carefully assembled word leaflets mounted up. By the autumn of 1884 he had enough of them, a large-enough selection of words for which he had readily accessible quotations, to begin inquiring of the dictionary editors—and Murray himself in particular—which catchwords, precisely, were then needed. For while all the other volunteers would simply read their assigned books, note down interesting quotations on their slips of paper as they came across them and send them off in bundles, Doctor Minor, with all the time on his hands, was able to extrapolate on his radically different, homegrown approach.

With his rapidly growing collection of word lists and his indexes, he stood ready now to help the dictionary project as it needed to be helped, by sending over quotations at the precise time the editors needed them. He could keep up; he could be abreast of the progress of the dictionary all the while, because he had ready access to the words that were needed, when they were wanted. He had made a key, a Victorian word-Rolodex, a dictionary within a dictionary, and it was instantly available. The quires of lists on his plain wooden table represented an accumulated creation of which he was quite rightly and jealously proud.

His practice was first to write to the dictionary and ask what letter or what word was being worked on. Then, on receiving a reply, he would refer to his own index quires to see if he had already noted down the wanted word. If he had—and given his method and his wide and energetic reading it was more than likely that he had—he would follow his own notation of the page number or numbers, and go straight to the word’s appearance or appearances in one of his books. Then, and only then, he would transcribe the best sentence containing the word onto a readymade quotation slip and send it directly to the Scriptorium.

It was an unprecedented approach—the kind of technique that only someone with an immense amount of energy and disposable time could contemplate. And of course it was a technique that suited the editors famously: They knew now that down at this mysteriously anonymous address in Crowthorne, in all probability they had on tap, as it were, a supply of fully indexed words together with their associated citations and quotations.

With the arrival of Minor’s first letter, saying what he had done and how ready he was for further inquiry, Murray’s hard-pressed staff discovered that life had become in theory very much simpler. From this moment forward they were not obliged only to ferret through their shelves and pigeonholes, and to trawl through thousands of existing slips for quotations that might or might not exist for a word they wanted to include. They could simply decide on a word that was giving them problems, write to Crowthorne, and ask for it.

With good fortune—and with a high statistical likelihood—they would in due course receive a letter and a package from Doctor Minor, giving the precise chapter and verse for whatever was wanted, enclosing the quotation slips at the very instant they were needed to be pasted onto a page for the compositors, the typesetters and the printers.


The first word to be tried in this way was a deceptively simple one (to the extent that any individual word is simple compared to any other). It was a word that was due to be included in the dictionary’s second fascicle, or part, being readied to be printed and published in the later summer of 1885. Please inspect your word lists, wrote a subeditor, to see if you can find in them references to the word art, and to all its derived forms.

The letter went directly to Doctor Minor at Broadmoor, as his invitational letter had suggested. Whichever of Murray’s subeditors first asked him the question in reply had no ideas about the man from whom an answer was sought. For many years thence no one in the Scriptorium was to learn anything about him, except for the undeniable truth that he was very good at his job, very quick, and on his way to becoming an indispensable member of the great new dictionary team.

Art was to be his first test.

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