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

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Poor (), a. (sb.) Forms: a. 3–5 pouere (povere), 3–6 pouer (pover), (4 poeuere, poeure, pouir), 4–5 poer, powere, 5 poyr, 5–6 power, (6 poware). β 3–5 poure, 4–6 powre, pour. γ. 3–7 (-9 dial.) pore, 4–7 poore, (6) 7– poor. δ. Sc. and north. dial. 4–6 pur, 4–8 pure, (4 puyre, 5 pwyr, poyr, 6 peur(e, pwir, puire), 6– puir(ü), (9 peer). [ME. pov(e)re, pouere, poure, a. OF. povre, -ere, poure, in mod.F. pauvre, dial. paure, pouvre, poure = Pr. paubre, paure, It. povero, Sp., Pg. pobre:-L. pauper, late L. also pauper-us, poor. The mod.Eng. poor and Sc. puir represent the ME. pre: with mod. vulgar pore, cf. whore and the pronunciation of door, floor.
On account of the ambiguity of the letter u and its variant v before 1600, it is uncertain whether ME. pouere, poure, pouer, meant pou- or pov-. The phonetic series paupere(m, paupre, paubre, pobre, povre, shows that povre preceded poure, which may have been reached in late OF., and is the form in various mod.F. dialects. But the 15th and early 16th c. literary Fr. form was povre, artificially spelt in 15th c. pauvre, after L. pauper, and ME. pre (the source of mod.Eng. poor) seems to have been reduced from povre like o’er from over, lord from loverd. Cf. also POORTITH, PORAIL, POVERTY. But some Eng. dialects now have pour (paur), which prob. represents ME. pour (pr).]
I. 1. Having few, or no, material possessions; wanting means to procure the comforts, or the necessaries, of life; needy, indigent, destitute; spec. (esp. in legal use) so destitute as to be dependent upon gifts or allowances for subsistence. In common use expressing various degrees, from absolute want to straitened circumstances or limited means relatively to station, as ‘a poor gentleman’, ‘a poor professional man, clergyman, scholar, clerk’, etc. The opposite of rich, or wealthy. Poor people, the poor as a class: often with connotation of humble rank or station.
6. Such, or so circumstanced, as to excite one’s compassion or pity; unfortunate, hapless. Now chiefly colloq.
In many parts of England regularly said of the dead whom one knew; = late, deceased.


The first slips of snow white unlined paper, six inches by four, and covered with William Minor’s neat, elaborately cursive, and so distinctively American handwriting in greenish black ink, began to drift out from the Broadmoor post room in the spring of 1885. By the late summer they were arriving at their destination in small brown paper packets every month, and then larger packets every week. Before long the gentle shower of paper had turned into a raging blizzard, one that was to howl up from Crowthorne unceasingly for almost all of the next twenty years.

The paper slips were not, however, sent to Mill Hill. By the time Doctor Minor had begun to engage in the second stage of his work, contributing the quotations rather than amassing the lists, James Murray and his team had all moved up to Oxford. The editor had been persuaded to give up his comfortable job as a schoolteacher, and despite the poor pay and the interminable hours, he had taken the plunge into full-time lexicography.

This was in spite of a general mood of malaise and wretchedness. Murray’s experiences with the first years of work on the big dictionary were far from happy, and many were the times he had vowed to resign. The Delegates at the Press were parsimonious and interfering; the pace of work was proving insufferably slow; his health was suffering from the interminable hours, his monomaniacal devotion to an almost impossible task.

But then there was one sustaining fact: The first of the fascicles, the revenue-producing installments into which Oxford insisted that the dictionary be divided, had at last been published, on January 29, 1884. Nearly five years had elapsed since James Murray had been appointed editor. Twenty-seven years had passed since Richard Chenevix Trench had given his famous address in which he called for a new English dictionary. Now, in a muddy off-white cover and with its sheets half uncut, was the first part, 352 pages’ worth of all the known English words from A to Ant, published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford, at a price of twelve shillings and sixpence.

Here, at last, was the first morsel of substance: part one of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society, edited by James A. H. Murray, LL.D., Sometime President of the Philological Society, with the Assistance of Many Scholars and Men of Science.

Murray could not help but be proud; the problems that seemed so insuperable, and that so pressed down on him, would tend to vanish whenever he held the flimsy paper-covered volume in his hand. And in a sudden sunburst of birthday-eve optimism, the editor—he would be forty-seven in less than a week—declared that he now felt confident in predicting that the final part would be published in eleven years’ time.

It was in fact to take another forty-four.

But now, after all the years of waiting, the interested world could at least see the magnificent complexity of the undertaking, the detail, the filigree work, the sheer intricacies of exactitude that the editors were bent on compiling. Those in England could write and receive a copy for 12s. 6d; those in the United States received a fascicle printed in Oxford, but published by Macmillan in New York, for $3.25.

The first part’s first word—once the four pages devoted to the simple letter a had been accounted for—was the obsolete noun aa, meaning “a stream” or “a watercourse.” There was a quotation supporting its existence from a work of 1430, which had a reference to the still rather damp and water-girt Lincolnshire town of Saltfleetby, in which, four centuries earlier, there had been a rivulet known locally as “le Seventown Aa.”

The first properly current word in the fascicle was aal, a Bengali or Hindi name for a plant related to the madder, from which a dye could be extracted and used to color clothes. Andrew Ure’s 1839 Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures and Mines provided the authority: “He has obtained from the aal root a pale yellow substance which he calls morindin.”

And then the first properly English word—if, a linguist might quibble, there ever is such a thing. It was to be aardvark, the half armadillo, half anteater that lives in sub-Saharan Africa and has a sticky two-foot tongue. Three quotations are offered, the earliest from 1833.


Thus does the vast emporium of words begin to display itself, through acatalectic and adhesion, via agnate and allumine, to animal, answer, and, finally, to ant. By that last, Murray’s team meant a great deal more than “simply the small social insect of the Hymenopterous order” there is also the contraction for ain’t, a rare prefix meaning “anti-,” as with antacid, and more commonly the suffix derived from the French for “sometimes,” and appended to make words like tenant, valiant, claimant, and pleasant. Three hundred and fifty pages of scholarly amassment, the first pages of what would in more than four decades’ time swell to no fewer than 15,487.

It was in the new Scriptorium in Oxford that Doctor Murray was to do all future work on the dictionary. He and Ada and their considerable family—six sons and five daughters—had moved there in the summer of 1884, six months after A-Ant. They had taken a large house on what were then the northern outskirts of the city, at 78 Banbury Road. It was called Sunnyside. The house, large and comfortable in the manner of North Oxford, which is a sedate settling ground for the university’s greater dons and lesser institutes, exists still, together with the red pillarbox that the Post Office erected outside to swallow up the immense amounts of outgoing letters. Today the house is occupied by a popular anthropologist, and he has changed it little enough on the outside.

Only the Scriptorium—the Scrippy, as the Murray family knew it, which Murray’s own dictionary defines as “the room in a religious house set apart for the copying of manuscripts”—has gone. Perhaps not surprisingly: No one, even in Victorian times, much liked the iron-and-corrugated-tin construction, fifteen feet by fifty, that was put up in the back garden. The next-door neighbor said it spoiled his view, and so Murray had it sunk into a three-foot-deep trench, which made it damp and cold for the staff and produced a huge bank of discarded earth that offended the neighbors even more. When it was finished, people said it looked like a tool shed, a stable, or a washhouse, and those who labored in it cursed the monkish asceticism of its construction and its irredeemably bone-chilling cold, and called it “a horrid, corrugated den.”

But it was twenty feet longer than the Mill Hill Scriptorium (which does still exist, an annex to the library of what is still a costly and fashionable school), and the arrangements for filing, sorting and then using the incoming quotation slips—which by now were flooding in at the rate of more than a thousand each day—were much improved.

There were 1,029 pigeonholes built at first (Coleridge had just 54); then banks of shelves were built as the volume and the sheer weight of slips became unmanageably large. Long and well-polished mahogany tables supported the texts selected for the word of the day or the hour, and large churchly lecterns held up the main dictionaries and reference books to which Murray and his men made constant reference. The leader himself had placed his seat and desk on a dais back in the Mill Hill days; here at Oxford there was a more democratically level floor, but Murray’s stool was taller than the rest, and he presided from it still with unchallenged authority, seeing all, missing little.

He organized the workings of the Scriptorium as might an officer on a battlefield. The slips were the peculiar province of the quartermaster corps, of which Murray was quartermaster general. The packages would come in each morning, a thousand or so slips a day. One reader would check quickly to see if the quotation was full and all words were spelled properly; then a second—often one of Murray’s children, each of whom was employed almost as soon as he or she was literate, paid sixpence a week for half an hour a day and rendered precociously crossword capable—would sort the contents of each bundle into the catchwords’ alphabetical order. A third worker would then divide the catchwords into their various recognized parts of speech—bell as noun, bell as adjective, bell as verb, for instance—and then a fourth employee would see that the quotations assembled for each were arranged chronologically.

Then a subeditor, one of the more exalted members of the team, would subdivide the meanings of each word into the various shades it had enjoyed over its lifetime; also at this point (if he had not done so earlier) he would make a first stab at writing that most crucial feature of most dictionaries—the definition.


Defining words properly is a fine and peculiar craft. There are rules—a word (to take a noun as an example) must first be defined according to the class of things to which it belongs (mammal, quadruped), and then differentiated from other members of that class (bovine, female). There must be no words in the definition that are more complicated or less likely to be known than the word being defined. The definition must say what something is, and not what it is not. If there is a range of meanings of any one word—cow having a broad range of meanings, cower having essentially only one—then they must be stated. And all the words in the definition must be found elsewhere in the dictionary—a reader must never happen upon a word in the dictionary that he or she cannot discover elsewhere in it. If the definer contrives to follow all these rules, stirs into the mix an ever-pressing need for concision and elegance—and if he or she is true to the task, a proper definition will probably result.

By now the words from the envelope of quotations would have been assembled into the smallest of subgroups, each with a stated meaning and a definition—either just written by a junior, or written some time before when the word was in a half-completed state. It simply remained now to divide these subgroups chronologically, so as to demonstrate—with the army of quotations—just how the shades of meaning of the catchword had altered and evolved over its lifespan.

Once this was done, Murray would take the collections of slips for each of the subgroups for any distinct and defined target word and arrange or rearrange or further subdivide them as he saw fit. He would write and insert the word’s etymology (which Oxford, despite the existence of its own etymological dictionary, did in the end see fit to allow Murray to include) and its pronunciation—a tricky decision, and one likely to provoke, as it has, ceaseless controversy—and then make a final selection of the very best quotations. Ideally there should be at least one sentence from the literature for each century in which the word was used—unless it was a very fast-changing word that needed more quotations to suggest the speed of its new shadings.

Finally, with that all squared away, Murray would write the concise, scholarly, accurate, and lovingly elegant definition for which the Dictionary is well known—and send the finished columns over to the press. It would be set in a Clarendon or an Old Style typeface (or in Greek or other foreign or Old English or Anglo-Saxon face when needed), and returned to the Scriptorium, printed in galley. It was ready to be set onto a page, and the page made into a form for placing on the great letterpress engines in the stone printing works down in the back of Walton Street.

Murray was no whiner, but his letters tell a great deal about the difficulty of the task he had set himself—and that the publishers, who wanted to see a return on their investment, in turn had set him. The expressed hope was that two parts—six hundred pages of finished dictionary—might be published each year. Murray himself tried gallantly to complete work on thirty-three words every day—and yet “often a single word, like Approve…takes 3/4 of a day itself.”

Murray spoke of the trials of the work in his presidential address to the Philological Society, and a subsequent Athenaeum article in March 1884—an article that led to his first real contact with William Minor. He referred to the difficulty “of pushing our way experimentally through an untrodden forest where no white man’s ax has been before us.”

Only those who have made the experiment know the bewilderment with which editor or sub-editor, after he has apportioned the quotations for such a word as above…among 20, 30 or 40 groups, and furnished each of these with a provisional definition, spreads them out on a table or on the floor where he can obtain a general survey of the whole, and spends hour after hour in shifting them about like pieces on a chess-board, striving to find in the fragmentary evidence of an incomplete historical record, such a sequence of meanings as may form a logical chain of development. Sometimes the quest seems hopeless; recently, for example, the word art utterly baffled me for several days: something had to be done with it: something was done and put in type; but the renewed consideration of it in print, with the greater facility of reading and comparison which this afforded, led to the entire pulling to pieces and reconstruction of the edifice, extending to several columns of type.

It was at about this time, when Murray was so very vexed over art, that one of his subeditors—or perhaps it was Murray himself—wrote the first official request to Broadmoor. They wanted Doctor Minor to find out if he had earmarked any quotations for art that suggested other meanings, or which came from earlier dates, than had been assembled so far. Sixteen distinct shades of meaning had been uncovered for the noun: Perhaps Minor had some more, or some further illumination of the word. If so, then he—and anyone else, for that matter—should kindly send them back to Oxford, posthaste.

Eighteen letters duly came in about the word from a variety of readers who had seen the article. One of the replies, undeniably the most fruitful, came from Broadmoor.

In comparison with all other readers, who had offered merely one sentence or two, the unsung Doctor Minor had enclosed no fewer than twenty-seven. He struck his subeditors in Oxford as not only a meticulous man; he was also very prolific, and able to tap deep into wells of knowledge and research. The dictionary team had made a rare find.

It has to be said that most of Minor’s quotations for this particular word came from a somewhat obvious source: Sir Joshua Reynolds’s famous Discourses, written in 1769, the year after he became president of the Royal Academy. But they were of inestimable value to the dictionary makers—and as proof, there today, standing as a mute memorial to the beginnings of his work, is the first known quotation that William Chester Minor had placed in the finished book.

It is the second quotation under the sense “The Arts,” and it reads simply: “1769 Reynolds, Sir J. Disc. I Wks. 1870 306 There is a general desire among our Nobility to be distinguished as lovers and judges of the Arts.”

Unwittingly, Sir Joshua’s words were to provide the starting point for a relationship between Doctor Murray and Doctor Minor that would combine sublime scholarship, fierce tragedy, Victorian reserve, deep gratitude, mutual respect, and a slowly growing amity that could even, in the loosest sense, be termed friendship. Whatever it was called, it was a link that would last the two men until death finally separated them thirty years later. The work Doctor Minor did for the dictionary, and which began with Reynold’s Discourses, continued for the next two decades; but some stronger bond than a simple love of words had also been forged, and it was one that kept these two so different elderly men intimately connected for half as long again.

It was to be seven years before they met, however. During that time Minor began to send out his quotations at a prodigious rate—at times many more than a hundred new slips every week, as many as twenty a day, all in a neat, firm hand. He would write to Murray—always rather formally, straying only rarely into matters that were not within his self-appointed purview.


The first correspondence that survives, from October 1886, was largely about agricultural matters. Perhaps the doctor, taking a break from his work at the table, had stood up to stretch and had gazed wistfully from his cell window down at the farm laborers in the valley below, watching them stacking the late autumn sheaves and drinking warm cider under the oaks. He refers in his letter to a book he is reading, called The Country Farme, by Gervase Markham, published in 1616, and to occurrences of the verb bell—as when the ripening hops swell out in bell shapes in late August. Blight, too, catches his attention, as well as blast, and then heckling, which on farms once meant the process of separating the individual stems of the flax plant from each other, and only later became used (often in a political context) in the sense of catechizing someone, making his or her arguments stand up to severe scrutiny, as a flax plant might stand when divided for the scutcher.

He likes the word buckwheat too—and its French translation blé noir—and finds such niceties as “ointment of buck-wheat.” He clearly revels in his work: One can almost feel him squirming with something akin to teenage excitement as he offers: “I could give you more if you wanted,” and as a teasing bonus throws in a small temptation on the thoroughly amusing word horsebread. He signs off, seeming to will a response from the great man on the great outside: “I trust same may be useful to you—Very truly yours, W. C. Minor, Broadmoor. Crowthorne. Berks.”

The tone of this and other such letters as survive seems halfway between the obsequious and the detached: dignified and controlled on the one hand, and leavened with Uriah Heep—like toadying on the other. Minor wants desperately to know that he is being helpful. He wants to feel involved. He wants, but knows he can never demand, that praise be showered on him. He wants respectability, and he wants those in the asylum to know that he is special, different from others in their cells.

Though he has no idea at all of his correspondent’s character or circumstances—thinking him still a practicing medical man of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure—Murray seems to recognize something of his pleading tone. He notices, for instance, the curious way Minor seems to prefer to work on those words that are current—like art first and then blast and buckwheat—and that are in the process of being placed into the succession of pages, parts, and volumes of the moment. Murray notes in a letter to a colleague that Minor clearly very much wants to stay up to date—that unlike most other readers he has no interest in working on words that are destined for volumes and letters to be published years and decades hence. The editor writes later that he feels Minor clearly wants to be able to feel involved, to enjoy the impression that he, Minor, is somehow a part of the team, doing things in tandem with the scribes up at the Scriptorium.

Minor was none too far from Oxford, after all—perhaps he felt as though he were at a detached college, like St. Catherine’s Society or Mansfield Hall, and that his cells—or what James Murray still thought of as his comfortable, book-lined brown study—were just a rurally detached edition of the Scriptorium, a den of scholarly creation and lexical detective work. Had anyone chosen to ponder further, he or she might have wondered at the strange symmetry of the two men’s settings—pinioned as each was among great stacks of books, single-mindedly devoted to learning of the most recondite kind, each man’s only outlet his correspondence, in great daily storms of paper and floods of ink.


Except there was a difference: William Minor remained profoundly and irreversibly mad.

The Broadmoor attendants had noticed some improvement in the very early 1880s, when he first replied to the appeal from Mill Hill. But as the years went on, and as Minor passed dejected and alone through the milestone of his fiftieth birthday in June 1884—his elderly stepmother having visited him the month before, on her way home to the United States from Ceylon, where she had stayed since her husband’s death—so the old ills returned, reinvigorated, reinforced.

“Dear Dr. Orange,” he writes to the Broadmoor superintendent at the beginning of the next September. “The defacement of my books still goes on. It is simply certain that someone besides myself has access to them, and abuses it.”

His handwriting is shaky, uncertain. He heard his cell door opening at 3 A.M. the night before, he says, and goes on, raving, “The sound of that door, as you may verify, since the alteration, is unmistakable; and you could be as morally sure of its closure by the sound, as of anything you do not really see.” If he has no other remedy, he warns, “I shall have to send my books back to London, and have them sold.” Thankfully this small tantrum was short-lived. Had it continued or worsened, the dictionary might have lost one of its closest and most valuable friends.

A month later a new obsession grips him:

Dear Dr. Orange—Let me mention one fact that falls in with my hypothesis. So many fires have occurred in the U.S. originating quite inexplicably in the interspace of ceiling and floor that, I learn now, Insurance Companies refuse to ensure large buildings—mills, factories—which have the usual hollow spacing under the floor. They insist upon solid floors. All this has come to notice within ten years; but no-one suggests any explanation.

Except Doctor Minor, that is. Fiends have been creeping about in the interstices between floors and ceilings and have wrought mischief and committed crimes—not least in Broadmoor, where they hide and crawl out at night, to abuse the poor doctor nightly, mark his books, steal his flute, and torture him cruelly. The hospital, he says, must have solid floors built in: otherwise, no fire insurance, and a host of nightly misdeeds.

The daily reports flow in a kind of seamless syrup of insanity. Four cakes stolen; his flute gone; his books all marked; he himself frog-marched up and down the corridor by Attendants James and Annett. A spare key used at night to allow villagers into his rooms to abuse him and his possessions. Doctor Minor, in his drawers and shirt, stockings and slippers, complaining that small pieces of wood were forced into his lock, that electricity was used on his body, that a “murderous lot” had beaten him during the night and had left a savage pain all along his left side. Scoundrels came to his room. Attendant Coles came at 6 A.M. and “used my body”—“It is a very dirty business,” he screamed one morning, standing now only in his drawers, “that a fellow cannot sleep without Coles coming in like that.” Again as before: “He made a pimp of me!”

And yet as came the madness, so came the words. Many of those that fascinated him were Anglo-Indian, reflecting his birthplace: There were bhang, brinjal, catamaran, cholera, chunnam, and cutcherry. He liked brick-tea. By the time of the middle 1890s he became very active working on the letter D, and though there are some Hindustani words like dubash, dubba, and dhobi, he was interested also in what were regarded as the core words of the dictionary—and contributions of quotations are in the Oxford archives for such words as delicately, directly, dirt, disquiet, drink, duty, and dye. He was able more often than not to supply the quotation for the first use of a word—always an occasion for celebration. For the use of the word dirt meaning “earth,” he quotes from John Fryer’s New Account of East Indies and Persia, published in 1698. For one meaning of magnificence, for one of model, for reminiscence, and for spalt, a foolish person, the first work by du Boscq also provided ideal material.

The dictionary staff at Oxford noticed only one small and strange rhythm to Minor’s frantic pace: that in the high summertime rather fewer packages would come. Perhaps, they speculated innocently, Doctor Minor liked to spend the warm days outside, away from his books—a reasonable explanation indeed. But when the autumn came around again, and the evening began to darken, so he began working ceaselessly again, replying to every request, asking repeatedly and anxiously about the progress of the work, and inundating the team with ever more packages of slips—more quotations, even, than were needed.

“One could wish that Dr. Minor had made about half the number of references,” wrote Murray to another editor, overwhelmed, “but indeed one never really knows what words will come of use till one comes to deal with the word lexicographically.”

Because his method of working was very different from everyone else’s, it is more difficult to make a quantitative comparison, to set the numerical achievement of his work against that of the other great contributors. Perhaps at the end of the project he had actually sent in no more than ten thousand slips, which sounds a fairly modest number. But as virtually all of them proved to be useful, and because every one of them was wanted, and had been ordered, so his achievement as a contributor more than equals the effort achieved by some others in sending ten thousand slips a year.

The Oxford team was indeed grateful. The preface to the first completed volume, volume 1, A-B, when finished in 1888—a full nine years after the project was begun—contains a one-line mention. It might as well have been a page of fulsome thanks, and it made their contributor supremely proud, not least because it was, by happenstance, discreet enough to offer no hint to others of his strange situation. It said simply and elegantly: “Dr. W. C. Minor of Crowthorne.”

Grateful though they might have been, the Oxford team was also becoming, as time went on, very, very puzzled. And Murray was more puzzled than all of them.

Who exactly was this brilliant, strange, exacting man? they asked one another. Murray attempted, fruitlessly, to inquire. Crowthorne was less than forty miles from Oxford, an hour by the Great Western Railway via Reading. How was it that Minor, so distinguished and energetic a man, and so much a neighbor, was never to be seen? How could there be a man of such lexicographical skills, who had so much leisure and energy and lived so very close, and who yet never seemed to want to see the temple to which he sent so many thousands of offerings? Where was the man’s curiosity? What was his pleasure? Was he somehow unwell, disabled, frightened? Could it be that he felt intimidated by the company of great Oxford men like these?

The answer to the deepening mystery came about in a curious manner. It was delivered to Doctor Murray by a passing scholar-librarian, who stopped by at the Scriptorium in 1889 to talk about more serious matters. In the course of a talk that ranged across the entire spectrum of lexicography, he made a chance reference to the Crowthorne doctor.

How kind the good James Murray had evidently been to him, remarked the scholar. “How good you have been to our poor Dr. Minor.”

There was a startling pause, and the subeditors and secretaries in the Scriptorium who had overheard the conversation suddenly stopped in their tracks. As one, they looked up, toward where their leader and his visitor were sitting.

Poor Dr. Minor?” asked Murray, as perplexed as any one of those who were now keenly listening. “What can you possibly mean?”

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