Wednesday, April 19, 2006

OED: From aardvark to ant in five years?

From Today in Literature:

On this date in 1928, the final volume of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. The original estimate was that the complete four-volume set would take ten years; when it took five years to get to "ant," the editors knew they had underestimated spectacularly....

Well, I hope it didn't take the full five years for them to figure that out. Now put your coffee cups down, friends, because this next part is funny:

They did not know that they were being significantly helped by a contributor from the insane asylum.

That sentence, from the summary on today's main page (it has no permalink, so if you end up reading this after April 19 you'll just have to trust me) appears nowhere in the full article, which is here. I laughed because it sounded as though the crazy guy was somehow hindering the work, so on reading the complete story I was disappointed to find that wasn't the case at all. In fact, Dr. W. C. Minor, an expatriate American physician, was a huge contributor to the work, sending editor James Murray tens of thousands of quotations over several decades to be reviewed for inclusion in the OED. That the very helpful Dr. Minor's correspondence originated from within the walls of The Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane ("where he was imprisoned for schizophrenia, murder and other violent acts") is almost incidental to the story.

Too bad. The article's misleading summary had me excited about learning how some nutcase kept the OED editors spinning their wheels for five frustrating years, preventing them from getting beyond the word "ant".

Don't you just hate it when facts get in the way of a juicy story?

5 comments:

Debra Hamel said...

Yes, this is the subject of Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, which is worth the read.

Brenda Coulter said...

The Today in Literature article did mention that book, Debra, and it sounded like an interesting read. So on the strength of your recommendation, I ordered it just a moment ago. Thanks for speaking up.

lindaruth said...

I think you'll like it. It's an excellent book -- I really enjoyed it and it's a fascinating story.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Brenda...there you go...an idea for a book character!

Debra Hamel said...

Glad to hear it! I hope I haven't steered you wrong....