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Words are fascinating ... Put them together in the right way, and we can communicate with people in other places and other times. Make a mess of it and ...

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Location: Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Monday, August 29, 2005

The Surgeon

We recently spent a couple of weeks driving down to Melbourne to visit our daughter, and while we were away, we also caught up with friends we've known for over 30 years. (I've introduced you to these friends before: )

Talk ranged far and wide, as it does when you have a long history with people, but as we were leaving, my friend lent me a copy of a book she'd just finished, and what a great read it is! It tells the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled ... Now, don't be like that ... This really is a fascinating tale!

It was in 1857 that the Philological Society met in London and proposed to compile a New English Dictionary, but it wasn't until 1928 (70 years later!) that the 12 volumes of the dictionary were published. And when you consider what was involved, it's amazing they got it done as quickly as this!

Just think for a minute how difficult it is to define a word.

Funnily enough, it's relatively easy to define the hard words, and for some odd reason, the longer the word, the easier it is to define e.g. if I ask you what 'multitudinous' means, you could quickly rattle of an acceptable definition such as, 'it means too numerous to be counted; lots and lots of something,' and you'd be right.

Easy peasy.

But what if I ask you to define 'take.'

Have a look at the quick definitions at onelook:
See the problem editor, James Murray, and his team had with the OED? Now imagine having to come up with definitions for over half a million words as they did!

Previous dictionaries had concentrated on hard words, but Murray wanted to 'fix' the language as it was used, so they decided to include all words. (By 'fix' they meant 'set it in time,' not 'mend.')

The other aspect involved in compiling this particular dictionary, and one that made it unique and contributed to the time it took to complete, was that it insisted on "gathering quotations from the published or otherwise recorded use of English, and employing them to illustrate the sense of every single word in the language ... Quotations could show exactly how a word has been employed over the centuries, how it has undergone subtle changes of shades of meaning, or spelling, or pronunciation, and, perhaps most important of all, how and more exactly when each word was slipped into the language in the first place." (The Surgeon of Crowthorne or )

Just mull on that for a moment and consider the implications ... gathering quotations (Murray decided on a minimum of six for every word; more for words with many meanings) for every word in the language at the time.

Obviously this was not something a few mates could do over a beer in the back shed, so the Philological Society advertised throughout the realm for volunteers who would read the suggested books and compile lists of quotations for every word. And this is where the story gets interesting because one who answered the call was Dr W. C. Minor, the surgeon of Crowthorne.
Minor was an American Army surgeon who'd spent time patching up soldiers in the American Civil War, suffered a serious mental disorder, murdered a man in Lambeth Marsh while staying in England, and who worked on the dictionary while an inmate at Broadmoor Asylum in the village of Crowthorne.

Told you it was fascinating, didn't I?

I won't spoil the rest of the story for you, you'll just have to read it yourself, but this week's quiz has some interesting words from the book ... see how well you do!

If you want to see the current OED, here it is: or buy your very own copy here or here: