There are books full of words about all kinds of things, then there are books full of words about other words: grammar books, style manuals, thesauruses and dictionaries. Among English dictionaries, one rules them all: the Oxford English Dictionary, the only dictionary universally recognised by its abbreviation, the OED. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Collins, Webster, Longman.
We know a lot about the creation of the OED already: Peter Gilliver’s The Making of The Oxford English Dictionary is just one of many resources on its history. Sarah Ogilvie’s work is more akin to Simon Winchester’s novel The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which tells the story of the relationship between a long-time editor of the dictionary, James Murray, and one of his prolific contributors, William Chester Minor – retired surgeon, murderer and incarcerated resident of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Like Winchester’s, Ogilvie’s focus is more on the remarkable and until now anonymous contributors who volunteered their time and research to the project.
Until Murray assumed the editor’s job, the New English Dictionary, as it was initially called, had made painstakingly slow progress. Begun in 1858, its first instalment appeared 30 years later, covering “A” to “ant” – useful, perhaps, if you were interested in aardvarks, not so useful if you were interested in zebras. Murray’s editorship began in 1879, when Oxford University took over. Under his watch it picked up the pace. The original editors had the bright idea of crowdsourcing entries from a pool of a few hundred volunteers; under Murray, this pool grew to more than 3000. As Ogilvie says, this was the 19th-century equivalent of Wikipedia. The entries – scoured from home libraries as far away as India, the Congo and New Zealand – arrived day after day by penny-post at Murray’s address in Mill Hill, London, where he worked as a schoolmaster, and later in Oxford. Murray and his small team of editors worked out of a garden shed, wrapping their legs in newspapers in the winter to keep warm. The walls of the shed (affectionately nicknamed “The Scriptorium”) were lined with pigeonholes stuffed with entries, each of which would be assessed for inclusion.
Who contributed these entries? Murray, being Murray, kept a handwritten list of them all, a list Ogilvie discovered one day while fossicking around in the Oxford archives. This book records what she was able to find out about some of these fascinating people. The honour of most prolific contributor goes to Thomas Austin Jr, who sent in a staggering 165,061 words. The sheer number of Austin’s contributions resulted in a problem for Murray and his paid editors: Austin felt he was owed recognition and remuneration for his efforts and took to prowling around the Scriptorium and writing abusive letters. Nonetheless, he earns the place of “Best contributor” (under “B” in Ogilvie’s alphabetised chapter headings).
“C” is for “Cannibal”. It turns out William Chester Minor was just one of three murderers who contributed to the dictionary. Sir John Richardson, surgeon and naturalist on the first of John Franklin’s three failed voyages to find the fabled Northwest Passage, was another. He was also an inadvertent cannibal – he and his starving companions on the expedition ate human flesh that another man had led them to believe was wild game.
And on it goes, each chapter a portrait of not just a person but of an obsession and a cultural milieu: the would-be scholars, the amateur lexicographers, intelligent and well-read, sometimes just a little bit crazy. The final chapter is devoted to “zealots”, a word that was added to the dictionary in May 1921, if you want to know. Murray himself is counted among the zealots, though he died six years earlier, in 1915. His great enterprise continued without him: what was originally considered a 10-year project was finally completed in 1928.
Murray’s last recorded definition was, appropriately enough, of the word “twilight”: “The light diffused by the reflection of the sun’s rays from the atmosphere before sunrise, and after sunset; the period during which this prevails between daylight and darkness.”