Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, May 21, 2000

'Interesting' Defines First Dictionary Writers

Next to the Bible, the dictionary is the most popular book in America, and eight out of ten households own one. It is a book that I have respected since I was a child.

My grandmother and I used it as the final arbiter of our frequent Scrabble contests. After the games were over and we sat snacking on custard ice cream and drinking bottled cola, I would pick up the dictionary and read from its definitions. But at the time, it never occurred to me to wonder how such a book came to be written in the first place.

Later I discovered that the makers of dictionaries were far from being the "harmless drudges" that Samuel Johnson had jokingly called them, but were in fact men who often led surprisingly interesting lives.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins, 1998).

The professor of the title is James Murray, the editor of the monumental Oxford Dictionary, and the madman is Dr. William Minor, whose life was indeed a curiosity. A Union Army surgeon during the Civil War, he went mad and shot an innocent man to death on the streets of London.

Confined to an asylum, he became one of the most prolific voluntary readers and contributors to the great dictionary. Winchester tells this unusual story in such a seamless manner that his book remains on the bestseller lists two years after its publication. Even if you don't particularly care about dictionaries, you will enjoy this tale.

Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary by K.M. Elisabeth Murray (Yale, 1977).

Elisabeth Murray is the granddaughter of James Murray, who has to be one of the hardest working scholars of all time. Almost totally self-taught and forced to leave school at the age of fourteen, by the time he was twenty he was the headmaster of the local academy. He believed in living the "diligent life" and studied languages, science, and history with a passionate devotion. For the last thirty years of his life, he pored all his considerable energy into the single task of editing the Oxford English Dictionary.

The bringing of the dictionary into the world was a difficult birthing, and the story of its creation makes for a suspenseful story. While it can be considered a Victorian monument, it remains today the unrivaled dictionary in English. A twenty-volume second edition was published in 1989, and the dictionary is now available online as well.

Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-makers and the Dictionaries They Made by Jonathon Green (Holt, 1996).

Green's book is probably the best history of dictionaries for the average reader. He makes it interesting by giving a brief biographical sketch for each lexicographer, and a common thread running through their lives is the unfortunate fact that they never became rich writing dictionaries. They were often schoolteachers with a strong entrepreneurial streak. Green includes chapters on slang and drives home the point that the language is what the people make it, not what the dictionary writers would like it to be.

The Life and Times of Noah Webster: An American Patriot by Harlow Giles Unger (Wiley, 1998).

The three greatest English language dictionary makers were Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, and James Murray. Of the three, it is Webster who has become a household word. Like Johnson he single-handedly compiled his dictionary, which consisted of 70,000 entries, 40,000 more than Dr. Johnson's solo effort.

Webster was a lot more than a lexicographer. He was an ardent patriot and active participant on the political stage around the time of the American Revolution, and the framers of the Constitution utilized many of his ideas. His spelling book for children was also one of the biggest bestsellers of all time.

Webster made a lot of enemies by being a busy body and know-it-all, but he was a good and brilliant man. Anybody interested in American history should enjoy this well-done biography.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.