Friends, today’s VERITAS is inspired by a program that I saw on BBC last saturday. It was a beautiful and a very moving program.
This is the story of two people’s quest for words. This is the story of passion and madness. It is the story of man’s desire to achieve greatness by associating himself with a great mission.
This is the story of the Oxford English Dictionary!
When Shakespeare wrote his plays there was no english dictionary. Milton, Chaucer and several literary greats worked without a dictionary. The first decent word list was compiled by Samuel Johnson in 1755 and had 40,000 words. This took him 9 years to compile. But this did not represent even a small fraction of the words that were there in the english language.
In 1870s the idea of a new complete dictionary was proposed by the Philological Society of London. The aim was to “record every word, every nuance, every shading of meaning and spelling and pronunciation, every twist of etymology, and illustrative citations from English authors for every word”. So in essence the aim was to write a biography of every english word. Work began in late 1870s. The estimate was that it would take 10 years to complete. Five years after the work began the dictionary had only reached the word “ant”!
The first serious editor of the dictionary was James Murray. He was a school teacher with an immense curiosity and love for the english language. Now remember that there was no source from where he could pick up the words and classify them. The source were all the books ever written and all words ever spoken around the world. So he called for help. English lovers around the world were asked to send entries for words along with quotations from books illustrating the use of these words. Murray got a huge response. Thousands of people around the world started sending quotations. Murray’s home started filling with sheets of paper. There were words all around him! Now Murray had another problem: sorting these pages. Murray employed several people to help him sort, organize and write these contributions. Even his family worked to help the dictionary. All his eleven children worked as sorters after their school hours. The standard rate for children was : a penny an hour!
The most prolific contributor to the dictionary was a man named Dr William Chestor Minor. He contributed hundreds of quotations a week. Murray was quite impressed with Minor’s contributions.
Minor’s letters were eagerly awaited by Murray and his team. The return address in the letters was: ” Broadmoor,Crowthorne”. Murray and his team wondered why Dr Minor never came to visit them. It was only 40 miles from Crowthorne to Oxford. Murray thought that Dr Minor was a doctor in a hospital in Crowthorne. It was only later that he got to know that Dr Minor was actually a convict in a mental asylum. The greatest contributor to the dictionany was a madman convicted for murder!!!!
Dr Minor was a surgeon who served in the American Civil war.
But during the war he went mad and was relieved from the army. While on a trip to England he killed an innocent man in a delusional belief that the man wanted to attack him. He was tried and was found mad. He was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in the Broadmoor Asylum. SInce Minor was an educated and a rich man he was allowed a 2 room private cell. He could buy and keep all books he wanted. Soon he amassed hundreds of volumes. When in 1880 he came across Murray’s leaflet requesting contributions to the dictionary he realized that he had found intellectual work that he could do from his cell. This work became the mission of his life.
Murray and Minor first met in 1891 in Minor’s cell.
The became friends. After that Murray would visit Minor frequently.
Because of the immense size of the Oxford English Dictionary it was published in small parts called fascicles. A-B was released in 1884. The complete dictionary was published in 1928. Neither Murray nor Minor lived to see their final work. The first edition of the dictionary was 10 volumes big and had 15,490 pages. The whole effort took nearly 70 years to complete. There were 414,825 entries in the dictionary. 2000 contributors had sent in 5 million quotations.
The Oxford English Dictionary is considered one of the greatest achievements in the history of english literature. It was the work of people who loved the english language.
This great work and its contributors reminds me of the following quotes:
“if a man does not discover something he is willing to die for , he isnt fit to live” – Martin Luther King
ishq la-mehdood jab tak rehnuma hota nahin
zindagi se zindagi ka haq ada hota nahin
( If a living being is not guided by an unbounded love
he cannot fulfil his promise to life ) – Jigar Moradabadi
Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time and regulate the Sun;