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Who Wrote Dictionaries?

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

James Murray: Author: Oxford English Dictionary

James Murray, a Scottish school teacher wrote the first Oxford English Dictionary. The work began in 1879 and at that time, the dictionary was named, New English Dictionary. Five years into the task and Murray to his desperation, realized he was still circling the alphabet ‘a’ and had only reached up to the word, ant. He had a dedicated team of assistants to help him in the work. Murray also made a public call of assistance for volunteers to send him quotes that would help identify rare words and their usage. He received great help from many known and unknown volunteers who set themselves to this work. The volume of mail that went to and forth from Murray and his team was so huge that the local post office set a up a special mail box near his working shed, which he called the scriptorium.

The man had left his studies when he was 14 years old because his parents were very poor. Murray from his childhood lived a life immersed in books and went on to become a teacher in a local school. After moving to London and pursuing his academic interests for a while, Murray got deeply interested in English language. He knew many languages by then. While preparing the New English Dictionary, Murray always sought to include as many foreign words as possible and in spite of the general criticism towards this approach, he continued to do so, to the end. In retrospective, one can only salute the farsightedness of this genius for enriching the language through an array of fresh words that brought rich cultural diversity as well. His approach was also inclusive of the different regional variations of English as spoken in different parts of the colonial British Empire. Murray had a daily work schedule that started morning 6 o’clock and ended by night, 11. He died in 1915 leaving his unfinished work behind and the completed dictionary was published only in 1928. The last word he worked on was ‘Trink’ which meant ‘turn down’.

Dr. William Chester Minor

James Murray sought help from people from around the world to find words and usages, and words in use in different parts of the world. One Dr. William Chester Minor stands out among his voluntary contributors. He had sent more than 3000 English quotations from different books to Murray. Many years later Murray came to know that Dr. Minor was an inhabitant of a mental asylum and the reason why he was there was that he murdered someone under mental delusion. Minor had a special room in the asylum to keep his huge and rare collection of books. Though Murray made possible his release from the asylum and got him better treatment for his illness, Minor eventually met his tragic end- in another asylum, his delusions and health failing him.

Samuel Johnson Jr.

Samuel Johnson Jr. wrote the first American dictionary. It took a decade for him to complete the task. Believe it or not, he did it in such a short time! This was the Samuel Johnson who by kicking a stone and declaring “I refute it thus!”, ground to dust the then fashionable theory that matter does not exist. Soon he found out America had its own share of national pride and what was lacking was a dictionary. He took money from an ordinary book seller to write an American dictionary and set up his ‘workshop’. He published his dictionary in 1755. Samuel Johnson was reported by his contemporaries as restless and unkempt. English language was his way out of depression and melancholy; and he masked successfully his problems with work addiction and a jovial outside persona. Until Oxford English Dictionary was published, Johnson’s dictionary was the unquestioned reference text of English language not only for America, but for the entire world.

Henry Watson Fowler

The New York Times called Henry Fowler, the “king of English”. He is the author of the Dictionary of English Language Usage. Fowler also started his career as a school master. He along with his brother, Frank Fowler, made this comprehensive book on English usage possible. His brother died before the completion of the work. They were amateurs but they wrote the best book ever in the area. The book got published in 1926. This is a very different kind of dictionary written by a very knowledgeable connoisseur of English language and in a lighter vein. Yet Fowler was careful not to compromise on the nuances of meaning and usage.

Noah Webster: Author: The Merriam-Webster Dictionary

It took Noah Webster, 25 years to write his comprehensive English dictionary which we call now, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. He was the one who simplified English language spelling for Americans and gave birth to the American English. He removed silent letters and double letters from spellings of many words and thus in American English, the spelling for colour became, color and travelled became, traveled. Webster felt that after a national government being established in America, the people of the country deserved a national language too, one which was in some way distinct from the colonial British English. He also believed, by simplifying the language, he was taking the language back to its Anglo-Saxon roots. Owing to strong criticism, Webster withdrew many of his simplified spelling suggestions by the time his dictionary was published but he also retained many. Webster was a controversial person in his political stands as he argued against new legislation for freedom of the press and gender equality.

These legendary dictionary writers, more scientifically speaking, the greatest lexicographers of the world, were forgotten by everyone soon. We use their dictionaries almost on a daily basis. This is how humanity progresses. Those who make the leaps of progress with sheer will, dedication and courage will be eventually forgotten but the flame of progress will be carried forth.


Sources

A short history of Oxford dictionaries, Oxford Dictionaries.

OED blogs

The Guardian

The New Yorker

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