It was the biggest volunteer project of its age. Even by today’s standards it was a whopper. Hundreds of volunteers contributed six million bits of research. It took seventy years to finish—and even then it wasn’t really finished. I own a “compact” version that weighs twenty pounds.
Give up? It’s the Oxford English Dictionary, the brightest star in the reference galaxy, a work so widely known and well respected that it’s often called simply by its initials: the OED.
Those of us whose livelihoods revolve around words spend a lot more time with dictionaries than the general population, but imagine life without one. Shakespeare wrote without a dictionary (although he did have a rather poor thesaurus), as did Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and John Donne. The first proper dictionary of the English language, authored by Samuel Johnson, wasn’t published until 1755.
Other dictionaries came and went during the decades following Dr. Johnson’s effort, but a hundred years passed before work began on a revolutionary new dictionary. In his bestseller, The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester tells us that the aim of this new dictionary was as simple as it was breathtaking: to catalog “every word, every nuance, every shading of meaning and spelling and pronunciation, every twist of etymology, every possible illustrative citation from every English author.” Even those who conceived the Oxford English Dictionary were stunned by the twelve-volume behemoth they finally birthed in 1927.
Most of us think of the OED as quintessentially British, and in some ways it is. Yet an American Civil War veteran, Dr. W. C. Minor, contributed more entries to the OED than any other volunteer. More interesting still is the fact that Minor worked on material for the great dictionary from his cell in an insane asylum nestled in the English countryside.
There’s a great deal more to the story, and Winchester reveals all in The Professor and the Madman. It’s a great beach read, with the added advantage of making you look really smart. And since the current bestseller list is awash in gray, you can’t beat that.
My novel, Yard Sale, is available in print and e-book versions from Amazon.