The Murderous Origins Of The Oxford English Dictionary

A key contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary was actually a murderer who was serving a life sentence at an insane asylum.

Oxford English Dictionary History

OUP ArchiveDr. Murray and his Oxford University editorial team in 1915.

With more than 600,000 entries and 2.4 million quotations in the contemporary version, a lot of backbreaking research went into the Oxford English Dictionary nearly 150 years ago.

Amid all of the arguments and fights among dozens of editorial staff who compiled entries for this masterpiece at Oxford University, there is a murder connected to the OED’s creation.

The Beginnings Of The Oxford English Dictionary

Murray At Work Scriptorium

OUP ArchiveMurray at work in his scriptorium, a dedicated room filled with books, at Oxford University (date unknown).

In 1857, the Philological Society of London thought the three dictionaries of English, including one published by Noah Webster, were woefully inadequate to illustrate the diverse language. The group decided to embark on a quest to create a comprehensive dictionary of English.

The society didn’t realize what it got itself into when it announced the project. Originally, members hoped the Oxford English Dictionary would finish in 10 years with 64,000 pages. They were wrong by about 60 years.

Twelve years after the project began the society signed a deal with Oxford University Press to enlist the help of its editors to compile every possible word of the English language in use since 1150 C.E.

Editors consulted every major literary source. Mundane sources, from regular correspondence and reports to government documents and accounting ledgers, also produced quotes and word origins. Dr. James A.H. Murray led a dedicated team to find the earliest known use of tens of thousands of English words.

After five years, Murray’s team got as far as “ant” in the dictionary. That’s when Murray’s team understood the expansive scope of the project. The team sent out the call for volunteers all across England. One American man even responded from his prison cell in an insane asylum while serving a life sentence for murder.

William DeLong
William DeLong is a freelance wordsmith. He thanks you for reading his content.
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