November 1, 2015 by ethelfritha
Death! Murder! Insanity! Lexicography! Wait, what? Yes, this is a book about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Well, sort of. It’s a book about making a dictionary in the same way that Dune is about the life cycle of a giant annalid. What it’s really about is the descent into madness of one Dr. William Minor, a veteran of the US Civil War, and the bloody circumstances which led him to be the second-most prolific private contributor to the OED.
First, however, there is George Merrett. Merrett, a desperately poor laborer with seven children and a pregnant wife, was shot in the street by a frightened and delusional Minor, dying instantly. Minor was sent to an insane asylum in Berkshire, where his army pension allowed him to amass a large personal library in his rooms. When James Murray, the scholarly, aesthetic man put in charge of the OED project, put out a request for volunteers to help collect quotations, Minor responded with so many useful ones that Murray made his acquaintance and even cultivated an unlikely friendship.
Merrett, the catalyst for what ended up being significant progress for the OED project, was buried in an unmarked grave and forgotten. Fittingly, Winchester reverses this by dedicating the book to him.