Monthly Archives: August 2013

An Odd Friendship

Sir James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in the Old Scriptorium during the compilation of the first edition

Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman describes a relationship between two logophiles (i.e., lovers of words) that developed poignantly and under peculiar circumstances.

The monumental Oxford English Dictionary, begun in 1879, was perhaps the first work to employ crowdsourcing to complete a seemingly impossible task. Dr. James Murray (a.k.a., “The Professor”) oversaw the work and, for nearly thirty years, beginning in 1885, Dr. William C. Minor (a.k.a., “The Madman”) was one of the most prolific and invaluable contributors of quotations to it.

For six years, Minor submitted work to the project from his home just an hour away, and communicated with Murray on a regular basis, with the two men never meeting face to face. It was not until a visiting librarian and scholar innocently commented on the fact of Minor’s residence at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Crowthorne, Berkshire, England that Murray understood why.

After their first meeting in 1891, the two men became friends and saw each other regularly for almost twenty years as Minor contributed tens of thousands of quotations to Murray and his staff, closely following and aiding work on the dictionary as it progressed.

Minor’s psychological affliction (now called schizophrenia) was considered incurable and untreatable at the time, but in a very real sense, his part in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary—”one of the great romances of English literature” (NYT, 1928)— and the friendship he established with Dr. Murray, were his therapy.

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