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10 September 2023

How to build a dictionary

A new book identifies the army of amateurs, eccentrics and criminals who created the Oxford English Dictionary.

By Pippa Bailey

When James Murray, the then editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), received the first bundle of quotations from a “Dr William Chester Minor” of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in 1883, he presumed the man worked there. In the first volume of the dictionary, published five years later, Minor is thanked as “Dr WC Minor, Crowthorne, Berks”. It was only in 1890 that Murray discovered the truth: that while Minor was an American surgeon, he was also a paranoid schizophrenic and probable sex addict who had been committed to Broadmoor after shooting a man dead.

Still, Murray continued to value Minor’s offerings. Only in 1902, when Minor, suffering delusions of a sexual nature, cut off his own penis, did his work cease (he survived, and died in 1920 in Connecticut).

Thanks to a book by Simon Winchester, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, and a Hollywood film, Minor is the most famous of the “Dictionary People”, as the lexicographer Sarah Ogilvie calls the thousands of largely unpaid volunteer readers, subeditors and specialists who contributed. Work on the dictionary began in 1857, but it wasn’t until 1879, when Oxford University Press signed up to publish it and Murray joined as editor, that the project gathered pace (of sorts: after five years, the team had only reached “ant”). In response to advertisements Murray placed in newspapers, around 1,000 slips – 6in by 4in pieces of paper on which readers listed quotations from books to illustrate how and when a word had been used – arrived each day. A corrugated iron “scriptorium” was erected in Murray’s garden for sorting and editing them; the Royal Mail installed a red pillar box at the house to cope with the volume of post.

Until 2014, only some of the names and identities of the Dictionary People were known. But that year, to mark her last day in Oxford, where she had worked as an editor at the dictionary, Ogilvie made a final visit to the OED archives. Plucking at random from a shelf one of the hundreds of boxes that held thousands of slips, she discovered “a black book I had never seen before, bound with cream ribbon”. It was an address book, in Murray’s handwriting, filled with the names and addresses of thousands of people who had contributed. She found two other such books in the same box, and, the following summer, three belonging to Frederick Furnivall, one of the project’s founders, in the Bodleian Library.

Together, these books provided Ogilvie with the first clues as to the identities of the Dictionary People, among them Australians, Canadians, South Africans, Americans and Europeans, as well as Brits. The detective work of tracing their life stories took eight years, and the resulting book, The Dictionary People, is remarkable first and foremost for the amount of time and patience it must have demanded. Ogilvie obviously revels in the curious details her research offered up, and her retelling of the Dictionary People’s lives and words is spirited.

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Murray’s address books – “clearly the work of an obsessive” – were assiduously annotated with symbols and abbreviations that Ogilvie had to decode. Some names were underlined in red, meaning they were Americans, or marked with a triangle with a line through it, meaning they had been chased three times to return their slips. Others were labelled “dead”, “nothing done” or “gave up” (in the address book dated 1879, a Dr Brinsley Nicholson is deemed “no good”; he had been paralysed by a stroke four years earlier).

[See also: The joy of dictionaries]

Minor was the fourth most prolific of the Dictionary People, sending in a total of 62,720 slips. He was beaten by some considerable way by Thomas Austin Jnr, who totalled 165,061 over ten years, and became increasingly agitated by Murray’s refusal to pay him for his efforts. William Douglas of Primrose Hill, the second most productive contributor with 151,982 slips over 22 years, was also a “lunatic”, according to census records. He was particularly obsessed with disease-related words, once sending 150 slips from Henry Thompson’s Diseases of the Prostate. Another subeditor and reader, John Dormer – who seems from his quotations (“humbug”, “minx”, “hanky panky”) to have been rather fun – was admitted to Croydon Mental Hospital aged 35 in 1907, hearing voices. “Cause of insanity: overwork.” There were, Ogilvie writes, “an above average number of ‘lunatics’” among the Dictionary People. “Was it their madness that drove them to do so much Dictionary work, or was it the Dictionary work that drove them mad?”

Rather than the academics and members of the literary set one might expect, the project attracted autodidacts and amateurs, “those who aspired to be a part of an intellectual world from which they were excluded”. Murray himself was something of an outsider (a word, according to the OED, first written by Jane Austen): a Nonconformist, Scottish teetotaller who left school at 14 and, despite his dedication to the university’s project, was never made a fellow of an Oxford college. Among the project’s characters were Eustace Frederick Bright, who started contributing as an 18-year-old medical student, was addicted to cocaine and morphine, and died of an overdose, aged 29, on the toilet floor at Walthamstow train station. Sidney John Herrtage was an editorial assistant who, it turned out, had “a kind of kleptomania for books” and was a dictionary double-agent, working on both the OED and Cassell’s Encyclopedia Dictionary.

Ogilvie posits Henry Spencer Ashbee, owner of the world’s then largest collection of pornography and erotica, as the most likely hand behind slips for words such as “imperforated, lacking a normal or functional orifice”, “exspuition, spitting out from the mouth” and the self-explanatory “devirgination”. Frederick Elworthy, a close friend of Murray’s, had more conventional work as a sheep farmer in Somerset, but his reading topics were certainly fringe. His particular interest in the occult led “ophiolaters”, people who worship snakes, and “aeromancy”, seeing the future in the movement of the air, to enter the OED.

Minor wasn’t the only murderer, either. Eadweard Muybridge, an early pioneer in motion pictures who shot his wife’s lover, was a contributor, as was John Richardson, who is believed to have engaged in cannibalism and killed an indigenous man during John Franklin’s doomed first voyage in search of the Northwest Passage. Several of Ogilvie’s readers later came to be quoted in the dictionary themselves. Margaret Alice Murray (no relation), an archaeologist, first sent in slips as a teenager in Calcutta; quotations from her own books and articles were added in the 1970s, years after her death. The quotations sent in by Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, were deemed useless by Murray, but her work as a writer and translator entered the dictionary in the 21st century, including in the entry for “ruffle”, taken from her translation of Madame Bovary.

Eleanor was one of 487 women Ogilvie identified among the Dictionary People. Many of them were unmarried and living at home, caring for elderly parents or cohabiting with siblings; the dictionary provided them with fulfilling and intellectual entertainment. Of this number, only three were present at London’s Goldsmith’s Hall in June 1928, at the dinner held to celebrate the launch of the OED’s first edition. The venue’s rules of segregation meant they had to observe the proceedings from a balcony above the hall where the men dined, outsiders until the end.

The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary
Sarah Ogilvie
Chatto & Windus, 384pp, £22

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[See also: Inside the Oxford English Dictionary]

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites