Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Insanity (noun): the state of being seriously mentally ill; madness.

You are about to read an extraordinary story about, (wait for it)… a dictionary. It’s a tale of murder, war, insanity, self-mutilation and 500,000 or so words. Continue reading, and you may never again be able to look a dictionary in the eye.

Let me start with a question. How long did it take to create the Taj Mahal and the great pyramid of Giza? According to W Pedia, the answer is about 20 years.

How long did it take to create the 12-volume New English Dictionary published in 1928, later to be known as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)?

A: 10 years B: 25 years C: 40 years D: 70 years

The answer is D - a little more than 70 long years. Work began in 1857 and was expected to be finished in 10 years. However, after just five years the project had only reached the word ant. Why was work so slow?

The dictionary’s guiding philosophy was that, for the first time ever, it would gather quotations to illustrate every sense and nuance of a particular word. The project called on volunteers world-wide to send in their words and quotations. This early form of crowd-sourcing attracted dozens of amateur and professional lexicographers and philologists including J J R Tolkien (The Hobbit) who worked on words from waggle to warlock and his good friend C S Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia).

One prolific amateur contributor was Dr W C Minor who corresponded with the OED’s primary editor, Sir James Murray, every week for 25 years. The good doctor, who gave his address as Crowthorne, about 60 kms west of London, refused to meet with Sir James and his dictionary colleagues. Finally, an exasperated Sir James wrote to the good doctor:

“You and I have known each other through correspondence for fully 17 years, and it is a sad fact that we have never met. I have long wanted to meet you, and may I perhaps suggest that I come visit you. If this is convenient, perhaps you might suggest a day and train, and if convenient for me I will telegraph the time of my expected arrival.”

A report of the meeting (seriously embellished) was later published in a Chicago newspaper as follows:

“When Sir James arrived at the hospital in Crowthorne he was taken to the director’s office and announced: “I, Sir, am Dr James Murray of the London Philological Society and editor of the New English Dictionary. And you, sir, must be Dr William Minor. At long last. I am most deeply honoured to meet you.”

There was a pause. Then the other man replied:

“I regret not sir. I am the Superintendent of The Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Dr Minor is an American and one of our longest serving inmates. He committed a murder. He is quite insane.”

The newspaper report ran under the heading: American Murderer helped write Oxford Dictionary. This thrilling and sad linguistic tale is brilliantly retold in the book The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester.

Minor, a graduate of Yale University, was a gifted young army surgeon on the confederate side during the American Civil War. His first action was the terrible Battle of Wilderness in Virginia where 27,000 men died in 50 hours of fighting (mostly hand-to-hand). Post-battle, the sensitive Dr Minor was also charged with branding the face of an Irish deserter. The trauma of war took its toll. Minor’s behaviour changed dramatically. He started to drink and visit prostitutes almost every night, and became increasingly paranoid and was often ill.

He was found to suffer paranoid delusions and was discharged and sent to an asylum. A few years later he was released and in 1871 sailed for England and a new life. But he was never to be well again. That same year, he ran onto the street and shot dead a man he claimed had broken into his bedroom. At his trial it was revealed he had complained several times to Scotland Yard about “Irish men who were hiding in the roof and slipping through the windows” and trying to poison and sexually molest him. He was classified as a Certified Criminal Lunatic; patient number 742 at Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane where he lived for most of his life.

He had two large rooms, a man-servant and a world class library. Every day he worked on the dictionary supplying some 6000 quotations per year, despite horrific bouts of illness. He surgically removed his own penis by candlelight one night, convinced that he was being abducted to far away places such as Istanbul and forced to commit sexual acts on children.

Dr Minor was the dictionary’s second most prolific amateur contributor.

Sir James Murray visited him regularly, as did the widow of the man he murdered. He provided her with a weekly pension and in return she supplied him with books for his quotations.

In his preface to the fifth volume of the dictionary, James Murray wrote that “second only to the contributions of Dr. Fitzedward Hall, in enhancing our illustration of the literary history of individual words, phrases, and constructions, have been those of Dr. W. C. Minor, received week by week…”


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