The Oxford English Dictionary is considered the greatest work of reference ever written. And, just to think the OED was developed by a Scotsman dropout and a criminally insane American.
Let’s start with the Scotsman. His name was James Murray who taught himself Latin, German, Italian, ancient Greek, French, Anglo-Saxon, Russian, Tongan, etc., etc. He knew many languages and many people are not certain as to how many he knew. Murray became a schoolteacher and in the 1860s he moved to London for his wife’s health. During this time, he became a member of the Philological Society (a.k.a. word nerds club).
The Philological Society was trying to write an English dictionary that would be more complete than any other dictionary published thus far. (Visit last week’s post about The (First) Dictionary.) The society dealt with the Oxford University Press and Murray became the editor.
The dictionary would trace the development of every word in the English language. This required that each word would have its meaning in chronological order with quotations given as evidence. The quotations was simple, but one had to have read every book ever written in English.
Murray couldn’t do this alone, and he had volunteer readers that would copy significant sentences to incorporate in the dictionary. This is where we start the story for William Minor.
William Minor was born in Sri Lanka in 1834. His parents were missionaries from New England who were trying to convert the island’s pagan population to Jesus. However, when William was growing up, his parents were concerned he was much too interested in girls and sent him off to a boarding school.
William eventually left boarding school to attend Yale to study medicine until the Civil War broke out. He signed up in the Union Army as a field surgeon. Titles can be misleading and William’s job was to brand deserters on their cheek with a capital D.
After the war, William was transferred to New York until his dealings with prostitutes embarrassed the army and they sent him to Florida. Then, he went mad. The army discharged him and he moved to England where he settled in Lambeth in London.
During this time, William saw an Irish immigrant and believed it was one of the men he had branded during the war. Upset, he shot the man and he landed on trial, which he was convicted guilty of. They sent him off to Broadmoor, a brand-new asylum. This was a hospital (not one of those crazy prisons) and he was rich enough to afford a manservant and books. Then, he came across Murray’s advertisement for volunteer readers. So, he applied.
He would read and send off his notes to Murray which were in the thousands. Murray eventually would say the whole development of the OED was because of William who contributed to the illustrations, from Tudor to present day. But, William signed his letters as W.C. Minor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.
In the 1890s, Murray did found out the true identity of William and went to see him at Broadmoor. They became good friends. Murray tried to give him emotional support, but it didn’t work. In 1902, William had sliced off his testicles because he realized that his parents and the army were right — he let his sexual appetite control him.
Murray was able to get William back to America where he died peacefully in 1910 with the six volumes of the OED they had completed. And, that is the story.