Before you start thinking that I need to be committed for being crazy enough to read the Dictionary, wait. I didn’t actually read it. What I did read was the amazing true story of how the original Oxford English Dictionary (or the OED) came into being. The Surgeon of Crowthorne follows the history of the OED from it’s original conception, all the way through to when it was first published in 1928, after a mammoth 70 year effort by it’s collaborators. But intertwining with the history of probably one of the most purchased books ever, are the stories of two men – Dr William Minor and Sir James Murray.
Murray was the man who was eventually charged with the privilege of overseeing the project and had the idea of advertising for contributors to the dictionary, rather than a small group of scholars having to record every word in the English language. One of these advertisements eventually made its way into the hands of Dr William Chester Minor. A retired United States army surgeon, Minor had been travelling Europe for his health and while in London, had committed a terrible crime which had been brought about by a moment of extreme paranoid delusion. Found to be not sound of mind, Dr Minor now found himself an inmate of the Broadmoor Asylum on the outskirts of the village of Crowthorne. A lover of words, Dr Minor was immediately interested in contributing to what he knew would be a history changing project. He wrote to Murray to express his interest and Murray in turn wrote to Minor with a series of very specific instructions as to the collection of words and their meanings. This correspondence was the beginning of a relationship between the two men that would span decades and would be vital to the success of the project. For despite the diminished state of his sanity, Dr Minor turned out to be one of the most important contributors to the dictionary. Though he was not quite sane, he had an incredibly ordered mind and logical mind and I am confident that without his contribution, the entire undertaking would have been another 10 years longer than it already was.
While reading this book, I was not only in awe of the mind of Dr Minor, but also in awe of the task itself. We think very little today of “googling” a word to find out it’s correct spelling or whether we are using it in the correct way and I believe that we certainly take something as humble as the common dictionary for granted. But consider this – Shakespeare did not have a dictionary to refer to, nor did Chaucer. They merely wrote what they knew and hoped that some of the less common words they used were being used correctly. Also consider the fact that when the OED was first started, it was the late 1800’s. They couldn’t just “google” a word to put in their dictionary. In fact the word “google” would never have even made it into their dictionary. There was no fax, no email, no telephones. The only form of long distance communication available was letter writing, which was still not as quick as what we know today. The resulting dictionary from this 70 year project contained over 400,000 words and their definitions, accompanied by over 1,800,000 uses of those words – each word having on average 6 different ways in which to use it. The contributors to the dictionary were not just from England either – they were also based in other parts of the British Empire and the United States. It was a world wide effort in a time not necessarily suited to world wide efforts.
RATING – 10 out of 10. I was completely enthralled from the opening pages and I will certainly never look at a dictionary the same way again.
WHO SHOULD READ IT – anyone interested in the history of the English language, or anyone that just loves words.
WHO YOU’LL LOVE – It’s hard not to admire both of the main protagonists in the story, but I also have a soft spot for Samuel Johnson, who in the 1700’s made his own attempt at a dictionary, some words in which had a less than scholarly definition, in particular the word “patron.”
FAVOURITE QUOTE – Every chapter starts with a word and it’s definition from the OED and my favourite quote by far would have to be one of these definitions (it also happens to be my new favourite word):