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

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Elephant (e·lfnt). Forms: a. 4–6 oli-, olyfaunte, (4 pl. olifauns, -fauntz), 4 olyfont, -funt, 5–6 olifant(e, 4 olephaunte, 5–6 olyphaunt, 4–7 oli-, olyphant(e. β. 4 elifans, 4–5 ele-, elyphaunt(e, 5 elefaunte, 6 eliphant, 5–6 elephante, 6– elephant. [ME. olifaunt, a. OF. olifant, repr. a popular L. *olifantu-m (whence Pr. olifan; cf. MDu. olfant, Bret. olifant, Welsh oliffant, Corn. oliphans, which may be all from ME. or OFr.), corrupt form of L. elephantum, elephantem (nom. elephantus, -phas, -phans), ad. and a. Gr.   (gen. ). The refashioning of the word after Lat. seems to have taken place earlier in Eng. than in Fr., the Fr. forms with el- being cited only from 15th c.
Of the ultimate etymology nothing is really known. As the Gr. word is found (though only in sense ‘ivory’) in Homer and Hesiod, it seems unlikely that it can be, as some have supposed, of Indian origin. The resemblance in sound to Heb.   eleph ‘ox’ has given rise to a suggestion of derivation from some Phœnician or Punic compound of that word; others have conjectured that the word may be African. See Yule Hobson-Jobson Suppl., S.V. For the possible relation to this word of the Teut. and Slavonic name for ‘camel’, see OLFEND. The origin of the corrupt Romanic forms with ol- is unknown, but they may be compared with L. oleum, olva, ad. Gr. ]
1. A huge quadruped of the Pachydermate order, having long curving ivory tusks, and a prehensile trunk or proboscis. Of several species once distributed over the world, including Britain, only two now exist, the Indian and African; the former (the largest of extant land animals), is often used as a beast of burden, and in war.


The achievements of the great dictionary makers of England’s seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were prodigious indeed. Their learning was unrivaled, their scholarship sheer genius, their contributions to literary history profound. All this is undeniable—and yet, cruel though it seems even to venture to inquire: Who now really remembers their dictionaries, and who today makes use of all that they achieved?

The question begs an inescapably poignant truth, of the kind that dims so many other pioneering achievements in fields that extend beyond and are quite unrelated to this one. The reality, as seen from today’s perspective, is simply: However distinguished the lexicographical works of Thomas Elyot, Robert Cawdrey, Henry Cockeram, and Nathaniel Bailey, and however masterly and pivotal the creation of the Great Cham, Samuel Johnson himself, their achievements seem nowadays to have been only stepping-stones, and their magnificent volumes of work very little more than curios, to be traded, hoarded, and forgotten.

And the reason for this is principally that in 1857, just over a century after the publication of the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, there came a formal proposal for the making of a brand-new work of truly stellar ambition, a lexicographical project that would be of far, far greater breadth and complexity than anything attempted before.

It had as its goal a quite elegantly simple impertinence: While Johnson had presented a selection of the language—and an enormous selection at that, brilliantly fashioned—this new project would present all of it: every word, every nuance, every shading of meaning and spelling and pronunciation, every twist of etymology, every possible illustrative citation from every English author.

It was referred to simply as the “big dictionary.” When conceived it was a project of almost unimaginable boldness and fool-hardiness, requiring great bravura, risking great hubris. Yet there were men in Victorian England who were properly bold and foolhardy, who were more than up to the implicit risks: This was, after all, a time of great men, great vision, great achievement. Perhaps no time in modern history was more suited to the launching of a project of such grandiosity; which is perhaps why duly, and ponderously, it got under way. Grave problems and seemingly intractable crises threatened more than once to wreck it. Disputations and delays surrounded it. But eventually—by which time many of those great and complicated men who first had the vision were long in their graves—the goal of which Johnson himself might have dreamed—was duly attained.

And while Samuel Johnson and his team had taken six years to create their triumph, those involved in making what was to be, and still is, the ultimate English dictionary took seventy years almost to the day.

The big dictionary’s making began with the speech at the London Library, on Guy Fawkes Day, 1857.

Richard Chenevix Trench was officially designated by his contemporary obituarists as “a divine,” a term that is rarely used today but that embraced all manner of good and eminent Victorians who pursued all kinds of callings and who wore the cloth while doing so. At the time of his death in 1886, Trench was still regarded more as a divine than anything else—he had had a glittering ecclesiastical career that culminated in his being made dean of Westminster and then archbishop of Dublin. He also was lame because of breaking both his knees: not because of any excess of genuflective piety, however, but because he fell down a gangplank while crossing on the boat to Ireland.

His theme on that lexicographically famous evening was intriguing. Advertised on handbills and in flyers posted around London’s West End, it was “On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries.” By today’s standards the title seems self-effacing, but given the imperial temper of the time and the firm belief that English was the quintessential imperial language and that any books that dealt with it were important tools for the maintenance of the empire, the title offered an amply understandable hint of the impact that Doctor Trench would be likely to have.

He identified seven principal ways in which the dictionaries then available were to be found wanting—most of them are technical and should not concern us here. But his underlying theme was profoundly simple: It was an essential credo for any future dictionary maker, he said, to realize that a dictionary was simply “an inventory of the language” and decidedly not a guide to proper usage. Its assembler had no business selecting words for inclusion on the basis of whether they were good or bad. Yet all of the craft’s earlier practitioners, Samuel Johnson included, had been guilty of doing just that. The lexicographer, Trench pointed out, was “an historian…not a critic”. It was not within the remit of one dictator—“or Forty” he added, with a cheeky nod at Paris—to determine which words should be used and which should not. A dictionary should be a record of all words that enjoy any recognized life span in the standard language.

And the heart of such a dictionary, he went on, should be the history of the life span of each and every word. Some words are ancient and exist still. Others are new and vanish like mayflies. Still others emerge in one lifetime, continue to exist through the next and the next, and look set to endure forever. Others deserve a less optimistic prognosis. Yet all these types of words are valid parts of the English language, no matter that they are old and obsolete or new and with questionable futures. Consider the golden question, said Trench: If someone needs to look up any word, then it should be there—for if not, the work of reference that book purports to be becomes a nonsense, something to which one cannot refer.

Now he was warming to his theme: To chart the life of each word, he continued, to offer its biography, as it were, it is important to know just when the word was born, to have a record of the register of its birth. Not in the sense of when it was first spoken, of course—that, until the advent of the tape-recorder, could never be known—but when it was first written down. Any dictionary that was to be based on the historical principles that, Trench insisted, were the only truly valid ones had to have, for every word, a passage quoted from literature that showed where each word was used first.

And after that, and also for each word, there should be sentences that show the twists and turns of meanings—the way almost every word slips in its silvery, fishlike way, weaving this way and that, adding subtleties of nuance to itself, and then perhaps shedding them as the public mood dictates. “A Dictionary,” Trench said, “is an historical monument, the history of a nation contemplated from one point of view, and the wrong ways into which a language has wandered…may be nearly as instructive as the right ones.”

Johnson’s dictionary may have been among the pioneers in presenting quotations (an Italian, for example, claimed that his dictionary had already done so in 1598), but they were there only to illustrate meaning. The new venture that Trench seemed now to be proposing would demonstrate not merely meaning but the history of meaning, the life story of each word. And that would mean the reading of everything and the quoting of everything that showed anything of the history of the words that were to be cited. The task would be gigantic, monumental, and—according to the conventional thinking of the times—impossible.

Except that here Trench presented an idea, an idea that—to those ranks of conservative and frock-coated men who sat silently in the library on that dank and foggy evening—was potentially dangerous and revolutionary. But it was the idea that in the end made the whole venture possible.

The undertaking of the scheme, he said, was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature—and to comb the London and New York newspapers and the most literate of the magazines and journals—must be instead “the combined action of many.” It would be necessary to recruit a team—moreover, a huge one—probably comprising hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers.

The audience murmured with surprise. Such an idea, obvious though it may sound today, had never been put forward before. But then, some members said as the meeting was breaking up, it did have some real merit. It had a rough, rather democratic appeal. It was an idea consonant with Trench’s underlying thought, that any grand new dictionary ought to be itself a democratic product, a book that demonstrated the primacy of individual freedoms, of the notion that one could use words freely, as one liked, without hard and fast rules of lexical conduct.

Any such dictionary certainly should not be an absolutist, autocratic product, such as the French had in mind: The English, who had raised eccentricity and poor organization to a high art, and placed the scatterbrain on a pedestal, loathed such Middle European things as rules, conventions, and dictatorships. They abhorred the idea of diktats—about the language, for Heaven’s sake!—emanating from some secretive body of unaccountable immortals. Yes, nodded a number of members of the Philological Society, as they gathered up their astrakhan-collared coats and white silk scarves and top hats that night and strolled out into the yellowish November fog: Dean Trench’s notion of calling for volunteers was a good one, a worthy and really rather noble idea.

And it was also, as it happens, an idea that would eventually permit the involvement in the project of one scholarly but troubled lexicographer manqué: Asst. Surgeon (Ret’d.), U.S. Army, Brevet Capt. William Chester Minor.


This, however, was only the idea. It took twenty-two more years of sporadic and sometimes desultory activity before the new dictionary truly got off the ground. The Philological Society had already complicated matters: Six months before Trench’s famous speech it had set up an Unregistered Words Committee; had corralled along with Trench the boisterous Frederick Furnivall and Herbert Coleridge, the poet’s grandson, to run it; and had planned to devote its corporate efforts to publishing a supplement dictionary, of everything not found in the books that had already been published.

It took many months for the enthusiasm behind that project to abate—though it was given a nudge by the swift realization that so many words were being uncovered in searches that any supplement would be far, far bigger than any book, even Johnson’s, that was already available. Once that was behind them, the society formally adopted the idea of a wholly new dictionary: January 7, 1858, when the plan was adopted, is normally reckoned the starting point, at least on paper.

Furnivall then issued a circular calling for volunteer readers. They could select from which period of history they would like to read books—from 1250 to 1526, the year of the New English Testament; from then to 1674, the year when Milton died; or from 1674 to what was then the present day. Each period, it was felt, represented the existence of different trends in the development of the language.

The volunteers’ duties were simple enough, if onerous. They would write to the society offering their services in reading certain books; they would be asked to read, and make wordlists of all that they read, and would then be asked to look, super-specifically, for certain words that currently interested the dictionary team. Each volunteer would take a slip of paper, write at its top left-hand side the target word, and below, also on the left, the date of the details that followed: These were, in order, the title of the book or paper, its volume and page number, and then, below that, the full sentence that illustrated the use of the target word. It was a technique that has been undertaken by lexicographers to the present day.

Herbert Coleridge became the first editor of what was to be called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. He undertook as his first task what may seem prosaic in the extreme: the design of a small stack of oak-board pigeonholes, nine holes wide and six high, which could accommodate the anticipated sixty to one hundred thousand slips of paper that would come in from the volunteers. He estimated that the first volume of the dictionary would be available to the world within two years. “And were it not for the dilatoriness of many contributors,” he wrote, clearly in a tetchy mood, “I should not hesitate to name an earlier period.”

Everything about these forecasts was magnificently wrong. In the end more than six million slips of paper came in from the volunteers; and Coleridge’s dreamy estimate that it might take two years to have the first salable section of the dictionary off the presses—for it was to be sold in parts, to help keep revenues coming in—was wrong by a factor of ten. It was this kind of woefully naive underestimate—of work, of time, of money—that at first so hindered the dictionary’s advance. No one had a clue what they were up against: They were marching blindfolded through molasses.

And Herbert Coleridge’s early death slowed matters down even more. He died after only two years at work, at the age of thirty-one, not even halfway through looking at the quotations of words beginning with A. He had been caught in the rain on the way to a Philological Society lecture, and he had sat through it in the unheated upstairs room on St. James’s Square, caught a chill, and died. His last recorded words were: “I must begin Sanskrit tomorrow.”

Furnivall then took over and threw all of his breezy energy and single-minded determination into his work—but in the same madcap, irresponsible manner that had already made him such legions of enemies. He had the bright and enduring idea of hiring a team of subeditors—whom he would interpose between the volunteer readers, now gaily sending in their slips of paper with the necessary quotations—and the editor himself.

The subs could check the incoming slips for accuracy and value, then sort them into bundles, and place them in the pigeonholes. It would then be up to the editor to decide on the word he was going to “do”—take out from its place in the alphabetically arranged pigeonholes the bundle of quotations for that target word, and decide which of the quotations best suited his needs. Which one was the earliest—this was vitally important, of course; and which others, thereafter, demonstrated the slow progress of the word, as its meaning varied over the centuries, up to whatever was its primary meaning now.

But Furnivall presided over a project that, in spite of all of his energies and enthusiasm, started slowly but clearly to die. For some reason, never quite explained, Furnivall had not the ginger to keep the hundreds of volunteers enthused, and so, slowly and steadily, they simply stopped reading, stopped sending in the slips. It seemed to many an insurmountable task. Many in fact sent back their books and the papers that Furnivall had sent them to read—in 1879 alone they had returned two tons of material. The dictionary was well and truly stalled, perhaps a victim of its own massive ambition. Furnivall’s reports to the society became shorter and shorter, his sculling expeditions with waitresses from the ABC longer and longer. In 1868 the Athenaeum, the journal that most closely followed the progress of the work, told its London readers that “the general belief is, the project will not be carried out.”

But it did not die. James Murray, it will be remembered, had been a member of the Philological Society since 1869. He had already made a name for himself with publications (on Scottish dialect), with huge editing tasks (of Scottish poetry), and with noble but unfinished projects (such as a planned work on the declension of German nouns). He had left the Chartered Bank of India and had resumed his beloved teaching, this time at the distinguished London public school Mill Hill.

Furnivall—who, though clearly committed to the dictionary, simply lacked the personal qualities necessary to lead it—thought Murray a perfect choice as editor. He approached Murray and others of the society too: Would not this astonishing young man (Murray was then just over forty) not be the ideal candidate? And moreover, would not the Oxford University Press, with its academic distinction, comparatively deep pockets, and a flexible view of literary time, be the ideal house to publish the work?

Murray was persuaded to produce some specimen sheets, suggestions of how the work might look. He chose the words arrow, carouse, castle, and persuade, and in the late autumn of 1877 the pages were duly sent off to Oxford, to the press’s notoriously difficult Delegates—essentially, the board of directors, who were infamous for being dauntingly highbrow, irritatingly pedantic and fiscally mean. Furnivall continued to meet other publishers and printers—the house of Macmillan was at one time deeply involved, but backed out after a dispute with Furnivall—and made endlessly certain that the big dictionary remained on everybody’s mind.

The twin notions of selecting the right editor and the proper publisher continued to vex the lexicographical and commercial literary establishments of England for the final years of the seventies. Oxford’s Delegates first dismayed everyone by saying that they cared little for Murray’s specimens: They wanted more proof that Murray had looked hard enough for quotations for his four chosen words; they said they didn’t like the way he had offered the words’ pronunciations; and they dithered about whether or not his etymological section should be omitted (not least because they were already publishing a quite separate and scholarly Etymological Dictionary of their own).

In exasperation Murray and Furnivall looked hopefully toward the Cambridge press, but the syndics there (the local equivalent of the Oxford Delegates) offered only a brusque rebuff. Lobbying went on, in common rooms and London clubs, week after week. And as time passed, so Oxford slowly became persuaded that changes could be made, that the powers that be might ultimately find the pages of the proposed book to be acceptable, that Murray might well be the man, and that the big dictionary could in fact one day have the commercial and intellectual appeal that Oxford wanted.


It was finally, on April 26, 1878, that James Murray was invited up to Oxford for the first meeting with the Delegates themselves. He had come expecting to be terrified of them; they imagined they would be dismissive of him. But to everyone’s surprised delight, he found that he rather liked the grand old men who sat in that great Oxford boardroom, and, more to the point, they discovered in short order that they very much liked him. The upshot of the meeting was the Delegates’ decision, in a moment of subdued and characteristically Oxonian jubilation—celebrated with a glass or two of indifferent dry sherry—to proceed.

Arguments over the details of the contract—which were often bitter, but were rarely conducted in person by a decidedly other-worldly James Murray (though his hard-headed wife, Ada, did have things to say)—took another full year. Finally, on March 1, 1879, almost a quarter of a century after the speech by Richard Chenevix Trench, a document was formally agreed upon: James Murray was to edit, on behalf of the Philological Society of London, The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, which would spread itself across an estimated seven thousand quarto pages in four thick volumes, and take ten years to complete. It was still a woeful underestimate, but the work was now beginning properly, and this time it was never to stop.

Within days Murray had made two decisions. First, he would build a corrugated iron shed on the grounds of Mill Hill School, he would call it the Scriptorium (the first of his two specially built headquarters), and would edit the great dictionary from there. And second, he would write and have published a four-page appeal—“to the English-speaking and English-reading public”—for a vast fresh corps of volunteers. The committee, he declared, “want help from readers in Great Britain, America and the British Colonies, to finish the volunteer work so enthusiastically commenced twenty years ago, by reading and extracting the books which still remain unexamined.”

The four sheets of paper—eight pages of writing—went out to the magazines and newspapers of the day, which regarded them as a press release and published such parts as seemed likely to interest their readers. They went out also to bookshops and newsstands, and assistants handed them to customers. Librarians handed them out as bookmarks, and there were small wooden cases in shops and libraries from which the public could take them and read them. Before long they had found wide circulation all around the United Kingdom and its various dominions, old and new.


And sometime in the early 1880s one copy, at least, left inside a book or slipped between the pages of a learned journal, found its way to one of two large cells on the top floor of Block 2 of the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Crowthorne, Berkshire. It was read, voraciously, by William Minor, a man for whom books, with which one of his two cells was lined from floor to ceiling, had become a second life.

Doctor Minor had been an inmate at Broadmoor for the previous eight years. He was deluded, true; but he was a sensitive and intelligent man, a graduate of Yale, and well read and curious. He was, understandably, preternaturally anxious to have something useful to do, something that might occupy the weeks and months and years and decades that stretched without limit—“Until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be Known”—before him.

This invitation from a Dr. James Murray of Mill Hill, Middlesex, N.W., it seemed, promised an opportunity for intellectual stimulus—and perhaps even a measure of personal redemption—that was far better than any he could otherwise imagine. He would write, immediately.

He took down paper and a pen, and in a firm hand wrote his address: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berks. A perfectly ordinary address. To anyone who did not know any better it was merely a means of describing an ordinary house, in an ordinary village, in a prettily rural royal county just beyond the boundaries of London.

And even if someone outside did know the word asylum, the sole definition that was available at the time was quite innocent in its explanation. The meaning was to be found in Johnson’s dictionary, naturally: “A place out of which he that has fled to it, may not be taken.” An asylum was to Doctor Johnson no more than a sanctuary, a refuge. William Chester Minor was quite content to be seen to write from inside such a place—just so long as no one looked too closely for the deeper and more sinister meaning that the word was then gathering to itself in the hard times of Victorian England.

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