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Volunteers and the Oxford English Dictionary

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The 1998 book by Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman (Harper Collins, 1998), recounts the true story of (as the subtitle proclaims) “murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” But what does this have to do with volunteers?


The compilation of the OED was begun in 1857, but the task of identifying and assembling all the words in the English language required massive detective work and painstaking attention to detail. In 1879, OED Editor James Murray published “an open invitation” calling for readers to participate in the collection of material for what was originally called the New English Dictionary. Literally thousands of volunteers responded. The most valuable of these personally submitted over 10,000 words with all the necessary documentation, over a span of twenty years.

The prolific contributor was Dr. W. C. Minor and something of a mystery man. Professor Murray was determined to find him in order to recognize his accomplishment. He did. Unfortunately, Dr. Minor, a physician and an American Civil War veteran, was an inmate in an asylum for the criminally insane, just 50 miles from Oxford.

More than the story of “madmen,” the role of volunteers in the OED is a fascinating history that continues today. The book concludes with a new “Call for Readers,” as the new Chief Editor once again solicits voluntary contributions to the first comprehensive revision of the OED since Murray’s time (this time via a Web site, of course).