The Surgeon of Crowthorne

Subtitled a tale of murder, madness and the Oxford English Dictionary, The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester tells the story of the most important, prolific and mysterious contributor to the development of the english language’s first definitive dictionary.  Two distinguished-looking Victorians, both learned and serious but from very different worlds, made the OED what it is today: one a brilliant polymath, Dr James Murray, and the other a madman and a murderer, Dr W. C. Minor.

Winchester takes on the role of detective to tell the story of the unlikely friendship between these two educated men.  Murray is described as erudite and pious who broke free from an impoverished childhood to become a towering figure of British scholarship and the founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Minor is a millionaire American Civil War surgeon, lascivious, a homicidal lunatic, locked away in Broadmoor Asylum but afforded enough privileges to contribute to this grand international project.

And the scope of undertaking the first definitive english language dictionary is immense, larger than any of its original proponents could ever imagine.  Winchester describes the context to get to this point, the dictionaries of the absurd or rare words, or specifically aimed at the lower classes and uneducated women, and how other languages were starting to publish their own authoritative dictionaries.  Defining the scope of the language and its very basic definitions emerged to be essential for the development of society and its international presence.

The OED had one essential defining principal: the use of quotations to provide examples of the defined word in its various uses.  In fact, once all the quotations were collated, only then was the definition written.  And to gather all these quotations Murray and his team called upon the general public in England and America.  They were asked to note down and send in quotations where a word has been used interestingly, well or unusually, and common words were needed as much as unusual ones.

Minor, in his book-lined double-sized cell in Broadmoor created his own system of participation, utilising his extensive personal library to become an on-call quotation contributor, the OED team corresponding with him whenever needed, on the cusp of publishing the next instalment.  Did he have any interesting quotations for ‘art’?  What were his thoughts on ‘buckwheat’?

Delightfully, each chapter opens with an extracted definition from the OED, pertinent to the coming subject: ‘murder’, ‘elephant’, ‘catchword’.   There is also a lot of investigation and context setting by Winchester: the lives of Murray and Minor to lead them to this working relationship; the english language and dictionaries up until this point.  But I did not enjoy Winchester’s uninformed musings toward the end of the book on the nature of treating schizophrenia: it is dangerous to perpetuate the myth that chemical treatment of psychic imbalance dampens brilliance or genius.

In all, Winchester’s book tells the story about a fascinating moment in time: how two educated men in vastly different circumstances came to work on the same seismic project.  The capturing and definition of the entire english language was an almost unimaginable feat, taking decades and changing the lives of many.  It is an interesting story.

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