If you've frequented my blog for any significant period, you know that I adore and rely on the Oxford English Dictionary (known as the OED). An entire blog label is devoted to my references to the beloved OED (including this post!). I turned to my most beloved dictionary a lot when writing my historical novels. (Was "cookie" used in the 1880s?) Many friends ask me to check the OED for similar reasons. (Among them, J. Scott Savage, author of The Fourth Nephite books, to be sure he's got the 1830s lingo right.)
And, of course, right here, Word Nerd Wednesday mentions the OED with relative frequency.
This post will have two parts:
(1) What is the OED anyway? (What makes it different from any other English dictionary out there?) (I've covered this briefly in past posts, but it's been a long while.) (Yes, I know that multiple sets of parentheses is atypical.)
(2) What does a madman have to do with the OED?
What Is the OED, Anyway?
In 1857, Professor James Murray began one of the most ambitious linguistic projects of all time. His goal: to create a dictionary that went beyond definitions to recording the first instance of each word used in print. His dictionary would show the change and evolution of the language.
Understandably, the project took years and years. An entry in the OED lists quotations from multiple sources, so you can see when a word was used, fell out of use, and came back. How the meaning has changed over time, and so on.
During my university days at Brigham Young University, I often walked past a copy in the library. It sat atop a waist-high bookcase, which the blue volumes covered in two full rows with somewhere around 30 volumes. (In that edition. It's longer now.) The OED is constantly being updated, as new words constantly enter the language (today more than ever).
My dad owns the shrunken-down version of the OED. It's only two volumes long, but each page has four complete, miniaturized pages. And no kidding, the set comes with a magnifying glass because even someone with 20/20 vision would go cross-eyed trying to read that puppy.
I own a CD version of the OED from about 10 years ago. I got it for my birthday one year and use it regularly.
What does a madman have to do with the OED?
While working on his dictionary, Professor Murray sent out calls for help in looking for early printed instances of specific words. This wasn't a one-man task. Even with help, completing the dictionary would take decades. And this was way more than a century before computers. Many people sent in slips of paper with quotes and sources.
But one man came to Murray's aid more than any other, somehow managing to find the time search for words hours on end, constantly, eventually submitting over ten thousand quotes, including many obscure words Murray wrote to him about, specifically assigning him to look for.
What Murray didn't know was why this man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had so much time on his hands: He was an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane. A murderer.
You can read the true story, which reads like a novel, in a book I love: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester.
I read it years ago, marked it up, and still count it as one of the most fascinating non-fiction works I've ever read.
Oh, and if you're on Twitter, be sure to follow @OEDonline for fun word nerdiness throughout your day!