Dictionaries, and The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester

Who would have thought that delving into the history of the Oxford English Dictionary would produce such a riveting tale of murder and madness, brilliant minds and dogged determination.

It was on Eliis Nelson’s blog that I first heard of The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester. And what a great read it turned out to be. Over the years there had been other attempts to make collections of words but the Oxford English Dictionary  was the first great attempt to set out the history and meaning of every word in the English language.  Supervised by Dr James Murray, hordes of volunteers collected words.  One contributor showed himself to be highly intelligent and absolutely the right kind of researcher for this task.

That researcher was Dr W.C  Minor.  He had been a surgeon during the American Civil War but signs of mental illness caused him to give up medicine.  While travelling overseas he suffered from delusions and in that state committed murder in London and was placed in Broadmoor  Asylum. The book is largely about his life story and his connection with the O.E.D.

Words are our means of communication.  I can only hope that the words that I have used so far in this post mean exactly the same to you as they did to me when I wrote them.  In my adult life have relied on three books to help me with the meaning of words  – Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, Fowler’s Modern English Usage and Roget’s Thesaurus.  I wonder how many school  leavers will actually add a physical, hold-in-your-hand dictionary as a must-have possession or whether they will just rely on online resources.

The changes that take place in meanings over the years can be a problem.  Some  words have changed so dramatically that I can no longer use them in their earlier meaning.   Recently I was feeling gay, using  it  with its old meaning.  But if I didn’t explain my meaning , you would just take the word gay at its present face value.  I didn’t want to say I was happy – that word to me  is too serene, too calm, very pleased with life.  But gay still means I am pleased with life at the moment but it has a bounciness, I want to give a little skip as I come down the hall, a feeling of sheer delight.   The meaning of happy and gay that you have built up in your mind dictionary might be slightly different to mine but there would be sufficient meaning in common for us to communicate, as long as you are old enough to know the previous meaning of gay.   So…. Yesterday I was happy.  Today I am gay,

Another word which is changing its meaning is marriage.  I’d be quite happy  to see that word honourably retired and have the lexicographers devise a new umbrella word to cover all forms of vowed intimacy, allowing for the fact that some time in the future someone will probably start agitating to include threesomes and foursomes !

These are all thoughts arising from my reading of the book.  But I was saddened by the amount of personal information the author gives us about Dr. Minor’s  illness.  I have done quite a bit of family history research and it’s always exciting when you find a new snippet of information apart from the official births, deaths and marriages – an old photo, a newspaper reference,  an old letter,  So it was enough to know from the newspapers the details of Minor’s conviction. It would have been enough to tell us how he went about contributing to the dictionary.  But Winchester had to  make a juicy story by invading the very privacy of Minor’s mind by using  the Broadmoor records.  Even though Dr Minor is dead I believe he is still entitled to his mind’s privacy.  The privacy of our mind is the only thing we really have.

On a personal note though my great grandfather used to buy the Birmingham paper once a week and reading it lasted him all week.  No doubt he read about the Minor trial in 1872 at the time when his first child, my grandfather was just a few weeks old. And another trivial note to tell you that a little black ant has just wandered across my laptop screen !  Now, where did he come from ?

If you are still with me then thank you for reading.  Isn’t it amazing what one book can bring out in you !

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Trusty friends

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Looking forward, looking back
I’ve come a long way down the track
Got a long way left to go   ———-with regard to reading——-

These are the first lines of a song by the father of Australian country music, Slim Dusty.   I haven’t been enjoying my reading the last couple of weeks – I can look back on some good reads and looking forward I have a most promising list, but that couple of weeks in between has been a bit dismal.

First it was Ghostwritten by David Mitchell.  After worshipping at the feet of this author all through Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green I suddenly found he had feet of clay. I just couldn’t find any interest in Ghostwritten.  It is a forerunner of Cloud Atlas in that it is broken into several sections, each in a different place with a different character but with links between the various episodes.  Perhaps it was me but a lot of the time I just couldn’t understand what was going on.  Much too subtle for me or perhaps a lack of understanding of Asian culture. That woman up the mountain talking to her tree – is it part of her culture or is she  a bit confused in the  mind to put it politely.  But I did find  some interest in her  storyline which showed the effect of the different waves of rulers in China

And what was going on in Mongolia?  There seemed to be a spirit moving in and out of different people which left me totally confused as to who was who.  I felt I was kept in the dark too much with background information which was too vague for me to wrap the characters up in nice little bundles.  I didn’t have this trouble with Cloud Atlas .

I read a couple of library books  and I can’t even remember what they were about.  And there was Stella Rimington, the MI5 director,  and her spy novel The Geneva Trap.  She is a good story teller and it fitted in well after reading Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. Both are spy related stories dealing with the British intelligence Service.

But now I am book-happy again.  I have given in at last and am using my iPad in bed at night. It’s much less of a strain on my eyes. I’m re-reading Elizabeth Gaskells’s Wives and Daughters.  Such an easy read.  And then my main daytime  read at the moment – I don;t know  why hadn’t I come across this before – is a slim volume by  Simon Winchester – The Surgeon of Crowthorne. This tells the story of the men behind the herculean task of putting together the  first Oxford English Dictionary. Brilliant minds, murder, insanity and friendship in a well researched true story.

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This is to be followed by Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a 900+ page tome.  This was recommended by my librarian and tells of cracking WWII codes and moves into the storage of computer data in our digital age. The two eras alternate in the story with the descendants of the characters in the war era dealing with the technology of the present. I must admit I  can never resist anything cryptic.

Have you noticed though how I have given up my independence and now am a meek and mild little hanger-on, always reading what other people have talked/written about..  I think I might qualify as stalker-in-chief of the book blogs, the freeloader, the groupie, as that is where I find the inspiration of  so much of my reading these days

And just because ……Imagewith regrets that I don’t know the source of this.