Fans of Comedy Central’s tv show “Drunk History” may be familiar with the story of Dr. William Minor: The Civil War doctor showed signs of struggling with mental health during and after the war (how could one not), and moved to London for a fresh start. Unfortunately, Dr. Minor suffered from the beliefs that all kinds of people were out to get him, and those beliefs led him to shoot an innocent stranger in cold blood. The American was institutionalized.
Concurrently, Professor James Murray was in charged of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) project. While other dictionaries in English and other languages had been giant undertakings, perhaps none had the scope or level of excellence as this project. The OED, when all was said and done after decades of planning and work, included nearly half a million definitions as well as 1.8 million quotations from literature showing the changing usage of words. The print would be 178 miles long
Due to the sheer amount of work, Professor Murray relied on the work of both staff and volunteers. One of his most prolific and dependable volunteers was a reclusive American doctor living in the English countryside – Dr. William Minor. While Professor Murray initially was unaware of Dr. Minor’s living situation and condition, he did become aware, and the two became colleagues, if not friends. This book is the story of their work together.
While the book is about the OED, it’s also about the Civil War, 19th century medicine, the English language and politics, mental health, and myriad other rabbit trails. It’ll Bill Bryson-esque. In fact, by dumb luck, I also happened to be listening to Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue – English and How it Got that Way at the same time I was reading this. The two in combination harmonize nicely for bookwormy trivia fans.