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One of the most popular books of the early 2000s – the readers' enthusiasm spread by word-of-mouth – was The Surgeon of Crowthorne by the well-known journalist and travel writer Simon Winchester.

Subtitled “A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words”, it was a non-fiction account of the American Dr William Chester Minor who had moved to London in 1871 and, in a delusional state (perhaps the result of events during the American Civil War), shot and killed a man.

He was committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum near the village of Crowthorne.

At the time Sir James Murray and a team of helpers were researching and compiling the exhaustive Oxford English Dictionary and had people around the world assisting by providing “slips” of words encountered in their reading with the word used in context to indicate its meaning.

9780140271287Murray was crowd-sourcing material in a way.

Dr Minor became one of these people and for a long time Murray presumed – because a couple of other doctors at the asylum were also contributors – that this doctor was also on the staff there.

The book – adapted as the much lesser film The Professor and the Madman starring Mel Gibson (Murray) and Sean Penn (Minor) – was as much about Murray's task of compiling the OED as it was the story of Minor who contributed more than 62,000 slips, making him the fourth highest contributor to the OED.

Minor wasn't the only murderer or lunatic (the favoured word at the time for the mentally ill) who provided slips. In fact there was an extraordinary cross-section of people who read with a purpose and helped build this remarkable dictionary.

Author Sarah Ogilvie is a self-confessed word nerd and lexicographer who was filling in time before taking up a new position in America in 2014. But by chance on her final day at Oxford, while wanting to farewell the Dictionary Archives where she had “spent many happy hours in the past”, she discovered a hitherto unknown treasure chest: Murray's address book of those many thousands who had or were contributing to the dictionary.

As Ogilvie notes, we have the dictionary and the story of Murray and few helpers but until that moment no real knowledge of who had done all that research for them.

And now here they were, at least the names and some addresses, and Murray's comments on them which indicated if they had died, given up, were excellent and reliable or were just hopeless.

For eight years Ogilvie played detective and tracked down the stories of some of these characters, and some were real characters.

Subtitled “The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary”, her book – naturally – has chapters alphabetically: A for Archeologist, B for Best Contributor, C for Cannibal . . . H for Hopeless Contributors, I for Inventors, J for Junkie and so on.

So here are Murderers, New Zealanders, Pornographers, Queers, Rain Collectors, Suffragists right on through to Zealots.

Yes, there are words about words here: Who knew that lawn tennis was originally called sphairistike, pronounced sfe'ristiki; that the lowest note in medieval Greek music was the proslamanomenos, or that there had been such a movement for English spelling reform in the 19th century?

It maykes sens becoz wee must not ekspekt ordinari peepl to understand Ingglish speling.

Think of words like cough, nephew, debt and hundreds of others.

But what is most compelling about the book is not the polysyllables or obscure origins of words but the people who located and contributed them.

Let's just take psychiatrist Dr Fielding Blandford who took a tough love approach to mental illness (cold baths, handcuffs) and believed insanity in women was most likely to recur when they were pregnant or “in the throes of nuptial intercourse”.

In 1895 he made headlines for his part in the abduction of a young feminist and upper-class socialist Edith Lanchester who was living out of wedlock with a working class Irish Catholic railway clerk.

With her father and brother, Blandford abducted the woman and took her to the Priory Private Asylum where Blandford certify her insanity and wrote that it was due to “over-education”.

Among Lanchester's friends was Eleanor Marx, one of Karl's daughters whom we have met earlier in the book, and she was a contributor to the OED but Murray considered her hopeless.

Lanchester was released within four days, went back to her lover whom she never married and they lived together until her death in 1945.

Blanford's reputation didn't suffer much but he stopped contributing to the OED.

So here – among other tales – is also the life of OED contributor Frederick Furnivall who, at 57 and married, fell madly in love with the beautiful, exceptionally intellectual 21-year old Mary Rochfort-Smith.

They lived together but on a visit to her uncle it seems she struck a match in an upstairs room, the head flew off, the carpet ignited, she stamped on it and her bustle caught fire, then the curtains . . . She died in agony six days later.

The distraught Furnivall buried himself in the work of the slips, providing thousands in the next 18 months.

And that is just another of the scores of fascinating stories and lives in these pages.

The thousands who contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary were a clever, eccentric, sometimes dangerous and diverse bunch people who read tens of thousands of books while living out their often unusual lives.

And the OED was all the better for that.



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