When the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary
put out a call during the late 19th century pleading for "men of letters" to provide help with their mammoth undertaking, hundreds of responses came forth. Some helpers, like Dr. W.C. Minor, provided literally thousands of entries to the editors. But Minor, an American expatriate in England and a Civil War veteran, was actually a certified lunatic who turned in his dictionary entries from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Simon Winchester has produced a mesmerizing coda to the deeply troubled Minor's life, a life that in one sense began with the senseless murder of an innocent British brewery worker that the deluded Minor believed was an assassin sent by one of his numerous "enemies."
Winchester also paints a rich portrait of the OED's leading light, Professor James Murray, who spent more than 40 years of his life on a project he would not see completed in his lifetime. Winchester traces the origins of the drive to create a "Big Dictionary" down through Murray and far back into the past; the result is a fascinating compact history of the English language (albeit admittedly more interesting to linguistics enthusiasts than historians or true crime buffs). That Murray and Minor, whose lives took such wildly disparate turns yet were united in their fierce love of language, were able to view one another as peers and foster a warm friendship is just one of the delicately turned subplots of this compelling book. --Tjames Madison
Distinguished journalist Winchester tells a marvelous, true story that few readers will have heard about. His narrative is based on official government files locked away for more than a century. As everyone knows, the Oxford English Dictionary
is an essential library reference tool. The 12-volume OED
took more than 70 years to produce, and one of its most distinguishing features is the copious quotations from published works to illustrate every shade of word usage. By the late 1890s the huge project was nearly half done, and the editor at the time, Professor James Murray, felt the need to meet and personally thank Dr. William Minor, with whom he had been in lengthy contact and who had contributed a lion's share of the quotations. As it turned out, Dr. Minor was an American surgeon who many years before had been found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity but had been incarcerated in an English asylum ever since. The tale of their affiliation and friendship reads like a creatively conceived novel. Brad Hooper