On Feb. 1, 1884, the first fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. But that isn’t where the OED story begins.
It all started 27 years earlier, when a group of old brainy guys in London (they called themselves the Philological Society of London and, incidentally, they still exist) decided that all of the dictionaries then in existence were inadequate. By 1858, they had made official plans to remedy that problem. Their method? They recruited a boatload of volunteers to comb through all of English literature and record words and their usage on slips of paper.
One of the more famous of these volunteers was a man named W. C. Minor, an American surgeon who, it turns out, was doing the research from his cell in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Minor, a graduate of Yale and an officer in the Civil War, had been imprisoned for killing a man in London. (I wonder which volunteer was responsible for the dictionary’s definition of the word murder …)
By the time the first fascicle was published, our band of merry wordsmiths was not even close to the “M” section: It covered 8,365 words, or “a” through “ant.”
Photo: liz west via flickr