Monday, October 13, 2014


We hardly ever open a dictionary once we are past our youth. I have once in a while opened Roget's Thesaurus, but that is more for fun than to learn. But English is one of the most mixed-up and messed-up languages in the world, and unravelling its history has engaged many great philologists, geniuses and maniacs. Simon Winchester's was one of the most entertaining books I read on the couches of Stanford University library. This was published in Business Standard of 14 November 2000.


The most famous journalist in Britain in mid-eighteenth century was a 37-years-old reporter on Parliament called Samuel Johnson. In 1746 he was approached by a consortium of five publishers, including Longman, the ancestor of our Orient Longman. They wanted him to prepare a dictionary of English. They offered him the princely sum of 1500 Pounds, half of it in advance. He hired six men, bought up all the books he could find starting from Sir Philip Sidney in the sixteenth century and ending with the most recently dead authors. He would read each book, circle words, and pass them on to his assistants to copy them on slips of paper together with the sentence in which they occurred. He went on collecting his inventory of words for four years. Soon he ran short of money. Once, when his milkman came to ask for overdue arrears, he blocked his door with the bed, and shouted, “Depend on it, I will defend this little citadel to the utmost!”He spent the next four years defining the words and illustrating their meanings with the quotations he had collected. Finally he had a dictionary of 43500 words and 118000 quotations; for the verb “take”, for instance, he listed 134 meanings. Thus appeared, in 1755, his “Dictionary of the English Language, in which the Words are deduced from their Originals, by Examples from the best Writers to which are prefixed a History of the Language and an English Grammar.”A century later in 1857 – soon after the end of the Indian mutiny – 60 members of the Philological Society met in the London Library on a foggy winter evening. Dean Richard Chevenix Trench spoke ‘On Some Deficiencies of our English Dictionaries.’ He proposed a new dictionary which would not only define words, but would give a history of each meaning – a sort of biography of each word. True, Samuel Johnson had done it after a fashion, but his definitions were highly individual. For instance, he defined an elephant as “the largest of all quadrupeds, of whose sagacity, faithfulness, prudence and even understanding, many surprising relations are given. This animal is not carnivorous, but feeds on hay, herbs and all sorts of pulse; and it is said to be extremely long lifed. It is naturally very gentle: but when enraged, no creature is more terrible. He is supplied with a trunk, or long hollow cartilage, like a long trumpet, which hangs between his teeth, and serves him for hands: by one blow with his trunk he will kill a camel or a horse, and will raise a prodigious weight with it. His teeth are the ivory so well known in Europe, some of which have been seen as large as a man’s thigh, and a fathom in length. Wild elephants are taken with the help of a female ready for a male: she is confined to a narrow space, round which pits are dug; and these being covered with a little earth scattered over hurdles, the male elephant easily falls into the snare. In copulation the female receives the male lying upon her back; and such is his pudicity, that he never couples the female so long as anyone appears in sight.” The new dictionary would be more complete – it would cover the entire English language from its beginnings – and accurate, identifying each meaning of the word and the earliest moment when it was used in that meaning.

When its scope was extended as proposed by Dean Trench, the task which took Samuel Johnson and his six assistants six years was beyond the reach of any individual. Instead, Trench proposed that it should be based on contributions from volunteers. Lovers of literature all over Britain would send in quotations bearing words, which would be knit together into a comprehensive dictionary.
The project which started thus in London ended up in Oxford; yet, it produced nothing in the next twenty years. then in 1878, the Delegates of Oxford University Press interviewed a Scotsman named James Augustus Henry Murray. In an application in 1867 for a job he did not get, he had written, “I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and Special, has been my favourite pursuit during the whole of my life, and that I possess a general acquaintance with the languages & literature of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes – not indeed to say that I am familiar with all or nearly all of these, but that I possess the general lexical and structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge only a matter of a little application. With several I have a more intimate acquaintance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin; in a less degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Proven├žal and various dialects. In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, German, French and occasionally other languages) Flemish, German, Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works for publication upon those languages. I know a little of the Celtic; and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of the Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian Cuneiform, & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew and Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic Arabic, Coptic and Phoenician to the point where it is left by Genesius.” He had worked in the Chartered Bank of India, and was then teaching in a school.
Anyway, he got the job in Oxford, and began collecting thousands of slips with quotations from volunteers. One of the most prolific amongst them was a Dr William Chester Minor, who apparently lived only 40 miles away from Oxford.
Intrigued, Murray went to visit him in 1891. At Wellington College station, he was met by a liveried coachman in a brougham, who took him up a hill to an imposing mansion. He was taken up the stairs to a large room, where awaited him a portly gentleman. I suppose he said, “Dr Minor, I presume?”
But no, it was not Dr Minor, it was the Superintendent of the Broadmoor lunatic asylum. Dr Minor was an inmate. He was a surgeon who had got his medical degree from Yale. Then he had joined the Union army during the American Civil War. In 1871, on a November night, he had shot a young labourer, a perfect stranger, in London. Apparently he was afflicted with terrible delusions; he feared that a gang of Irishmen was out to kill him. He was found to be insane and confined to the asylum in Broadmoor. That is where Murray found him. He went to Minor’s rooms, which housed an invaluable collection of antiquarian books that he had bought himself.

But there is much more to him than that; his riveting story is told in Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne  (Penguin).