book about the creation of the Oxford English
is amazing, and contrary to what most would expect it reads like a
of necessity at the centre of the novel, it shares that position with
Dr William Chester Minor, who in spite of his unbelievably tragic
life was a leading contributor to the Dictionary. Once
it was decided that there was a need for a dictionary, comprising all
words in the English language (Samuel Johnson's dictionary only
included words he liked), quotes (using the words) and definitions (explaining the words) needed to be collected, and the population at
large was asked to contribute.
other person of significance is Dr James Murray, who
is now considered one of the 'towering figures in British
scholarship' (p. 30 Penguin edition from 1999).
As the first editor of the Dictionary, he gave almost his entire working
life to the project and, in doing so, became inextricably involved
with W C Minor. With
an unbelievable thirst for knowledge, he taught himself several
languages and read all that was available on subjects such
as geography, science,
archaeology, history and, of course, philology. He had a formidable
mind, which came to be the force behind the Big Dictionary as it was
American Civil War, the Irish question, murder, lunatic asylums and
the wonder of words are all part of this wonderful, informative
and entertaining novel. I warmly recommend it.