Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Delusions & Grandeur

A Monument to the English Language

Richard Chenevix Trench
Richard Chenevix Trench

Since the advent of the first English dictionary by Robert Cawdrey in the early 17th century, there was no record of the English language in its entirety. That is, until a group of scholarly lexicographers from the Philological Society of London undertook the enormous task in late 19th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) website, the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Richard Chenevix Trench, initially proposed the idea in 1857 to the Philological Society of London. He suggested in two papers presented to the society that the English language dictionaries available at the time were incomplete and deficient. Trench believed that a new English dictionary should be constructed that encompassed every word in the language with accompanying quotes that stated its origin and use. However, it was a monumental task.

Trench chose two men to start up the project, Herbert Coleridge, who became the dictionarys first editor, and Frederick Furnivall. The two men immediately began enlisting the help of several hundred volunteers. They needed as many people as possible to assist with the reading of thousands of books, in order to amass a collection of English words.

The work was tedious and time consuming, and the interest of many volunteers began to wane after a short time. The project proved to be more difficult than anyone imagined and many believed that the dictionary would never be completed. To make matters worse, mismanagement of the project and the death of Coleridge one year later, further delayed work on the dictionary.

Working on the OED
Working on the OED

In 1879, a new editor was assigned to the project: James Murray, a Scottish lexicographer teacher and philologist. Murray made three strategic moves soon after assuming the position. He constructed a workroom known as the Scriptorium to be used for editing purposes; he began to enlist new volunteers to help with the project; and he employed the use of a reading program in order to assemble as many English words as possible.

While the Scriptorium was being built, Murray sent out an advertisement appealing for readers, which was circulated throughout London. It was one of Murrays ads that caught Minors attention. Soon after Minor responded to the appeal, he was accepted as a volunteer. He began his new job by reading, collecting words and quotations. It was a position that would occupy him for the rest of his life.

According to Winchester, Minor developed a unique system for gathering words and quotes. Minor constructed elaborate, alphabetically categorized word lists, which served as an index. He then collected quotations and citations for each word he gathered. Minors system proved to be of great help to Murray and his staff because he simplified the collection method and sped the pace of the project.

A quote from a submission slip that Minor had sent to Murray -  

        a1548 Hall Chron., Hen. IV. (1550) 32b, 
        Duryng whiche sickenes as Auctors write
        he caused his crowne to be set on the
        pillowe at his beddes heade.  - OED

Nevertheless, the construction of the dictionary was taking longer than previously expected. It took approximately five years after Murray became editor for the first part of the dictionary to get published. The volume consisted of 352 pages and included the letter A to Ant. It was difficult for anyone at the time to estimate precisely how long it would take for the completion of the dictionary in its entirety. Some believed that it would take at least 20 years to complete and others believed it could be done in less time. In actuality, it would take almost a half-century before the first 100 installments were published ending with the letter Z.

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