Today, a great dictionary and an asylum for the
criminally insane. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
The Oxford English
Dictionary (called the OED) is a
wonderful, many-volume account of the English
language. Most dictionaries simply define words,
but the OED is a dictionary of usage. It traces
words historically through a sequence of
quotations. That way we see how each word came to
be used the way it is.
Writer Simon Winchester tells how James Murray
began putting the OED together in 1879. Murray's
biggest problem was collecting hundreds of
thousands of quotations. He needed many for each
word. So he advertised for volunteers to submit
quotations. That worked. Soon bundles of them were
One of Murray's most dedicated suppliers was a Dr.
William C. Minor. Over the years, Minor supplied
tens of thousands of quotations. Murray would
invite Minor to come up to Oxford and visit him.
Minor always found some excuse not to come.
Finally, Murray went to visit Minor. Whether he'd
learned Minor's circumstances ahead of time is
unclear. It is clear that he was met at the train
station and taken to the Broadmoor Criminal
William Minor was American -- a Yale graduate who'd
served the Union Army as an assistant surgeon. He'd
lived with mutilation and death in the Battle of
the Wilderness. Then he was ordered to brand an
Irish soldier's face with the letter D when the man
was caught deserting. That straw broke the camel's
back. Minor's conscience cracked. He developed a
guilty terror of all Irishmen.
After the war, Minor's wealthy parents sent him to
study art in England. One night in a poorer part of
London he heard a worker walking behind him and
imagined the branded soldier had come to kill him.
He panicked, drew a pistol, and shot the man. Minor
was found insane and sentenced to life in the
Broadmoor Asylum. With his wealth, he could occupy
two rooms, engage a manservant, and pursue
scholarly interests. He made both apology and
reparation to the dead man's widow. They developed
a lasting friendship. She brought him antiquarian
books and visited him in his cell.
Of course Murray's call for quotations was manna
from Heaven for Minor's brilliant, if tormented
mind. He sent in bundles of quotations, especially
the more obscure and hard-to-find ones. So I went
to the OED looking for phrases that might reflect
Minor's state of mind. For the word brand
they use a quote from Uncle Tom's Cabin about Tom
having been "branded in his right hand with the
letter H." Did Minor provide that one? More likely
is a quote by Lady Montagu used to illustrate the
word murder. She wrote:
For tho' in law, to murder be to kill
In equity the murder's in the will.
For years Murray badgered the government to release
Minor. In 1910 he finally convinced a young home
secretary named Winston Churchill. Minor
died at home in Connecticut in 1921, having done a
penance that has well served any of us who love
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Murray, K. M. E., Caught in the Web of Words:
James A. H. Murray and the Oxford English
Dictionary. New Haven: Yale University Press,
Winchester, S., The Professor and the Madman: A
Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the
Oxford English Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins,
Winchester, S., The Strange Case of the Surgeon at
Crowthorne. Smithsonian, Sept. 1998, pp.
Gussow, M., The Strange Case of the Madman With a
Quotation for Every Word, New York Times,
Monday, Sept. 7, 1998, pp. B1, B9.
For a story with remarkably similar overtones, see
For more on the Oxford English Dictionary
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.
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