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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
Broadmoor’s word-finder

Book worm

Dr James Murray
Murray and Minor did not meet for many years
© Reprinted by permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press
It was his passion for books that brought Minor to wide public attention for the second time, in the romanticised story of his meeting with Dr James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The idea of a new, all-encompassing "Big Dictionary" of English was first touted in 1857. It was a huge undertaking, and from the start its editors recognised that they would need the help of many volunteers, to search their shelves for quotations to support each definition. Even with this help the dictionary took 70 years to complete!

Murray assumed editorship of the dictionary in 1879, and issued an appeal for volunteers to magazines and newspapers. A copy of the appeal found its way into Minor's hands, and he seized upon the opportunity to help; whether he saw it merely as something to occupy his time, or whether it gave him the feeling he was working towards his redemption, we will never know.

Minor started collecting quotations around 1880-1, and continued doing so for 20 years, working systematically through his library. Simon Winchester in 'The Surgeon of Crowthorne', says this work became the "defining feature" of Minor's life.

Working on the OED
Working on the OED
© Reprinted by permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press
Minor certainly made an enormous contribution to the dictionary over the years, and this did not – could not – go unnoticed. Murray said Minor's contributions were so great they "could easily have illustrated the last four centuries [of words] from his quotations alone".

An enigma

Minor always signed his letters in the same way: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire. His identity remained an enigma to those working on the dictionary, and Murray and Minor did not meet for many years. In 1915, a sensationalised account of their meeting appeared in Strand magazine, and was quickly reprinted across the world, even in China.

It described how, following Minor's failure to attend the Great Dictionary Dinner in 1897, Murray decided to visit Minor himself, to find out who this mysterious man was. Arriving at the large Victorian mansion, it continued, Murray expected to find Minor a typical country gentleman. When shown into the study of Broadmoor's director he naturally assumed this man was the evasive Minor, only then did he find out that Minor was actually an inmate of the asylum.

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