The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the most comprehensive work of its kind, is celebrating its 90th birthday in 2018. The originators expected the work to take 10 years. Hah! In five years they were as far as "ant." It finally took 70 years. And the minute it was published, they started on an update!
We are so used to "looking it up" that it is hard to realize the first real dictionary as we know it wasn't published until 1755, by Samuel Johnson. It remained the standard for a century – but it was not comprehensive.
In 1858, the London Philological Society decided to create a better dictionary. The project stumbled along until 1878 when Prof. James Murray was appointed as editor. It became his life's work, but sadly, he didn't live to see its publication, dying in 1915.
The genius of this dictionary is in its comprehensiveness. Each word has its origin, first written use, definition(s), and quotations that illustrate each and every nuance of the word.
Murray sent out flyers for people to read literature from the 16th century onward and start "catching" words – writing in a specific format on half-size sheets of paper. Thousands of slips started pouring in.
One unusual contributor was Dr. William Minor. The story is recounted in The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. Minor was a well-educated American who served in the Civil War. Some speculated that what he saw and did there drove him mad; but late in his life he was diagnosed with what we now call schizophrenia.
After the war, he went to London, and suffering from paranoid delusions, shot and killed a man. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to Broadmoor, a new asylum for the mentally ill.
As he was polite, intelligent, non-violent, and had a pension from the U.S. Army, he was treated quite well. He had two cells, a fireplace, extensive shelves filled by books he ordered from London, his flute, his painting supplies – almost all the comforts of home.
He found one of Murray's flyers, and he responded. With nothing but time on his hands, he organized a particularly efficient system, and sent thousands of slips. After finding out why Minor didn't accept his invitations to visit, Murray visited him frequently at Broadmoor to discuss what words or information were needed. They collaborated for some twenty years.
Now the OED is computerized – it's amazing that a 20-volume work weighing 150 pounds can be reduced to a computer disc. It is in the process of another total revision – but I'm sure it won't take another 70 years! If you want to subscribe, there is a limited-time special rate of $90 for a year.