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First Oxford English Dictionary compilation

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(www.jeffreyhill.typepad.com) Kasi Silva (www.jeffreyhill.typepad.com) Kasi Silva

Dr. William Chester Minor, who contributed more than ten to twelve thousand words to compile the first Oxford English Dictionary (OED), was born in Manepay east coast of Ceylon in June 1834, where his parents were living as American Missionaries. A Surgeon of the Yale University he contributed to the first compiling of the OED while he was an inmate of an asylum suffering from “monomani, a form of insanity”. In Simon Winchester’s book on compiling of the OED, titled ‘The Professor and the Mad Man’, Ceylon is described in the manner given below perhaps from the records left by Dr. Minor. The first OED was completed in 1928 after commencing in 1857, an ambitious project with Dr. James Murray as the editor.

“Ceylon is a lushly overgrown tropical island that seems to hang from India’s southern tip like a teardrop - or a pear or a pearl or even (some say) a Virginia ham - is regarded by priests of the world’s stricter religions as the place to which Adam and Eve were exiled after their fall from grace. It is a Garden of Eden for sinner, an island limbo for those who yielded to temptation.”

These days it is called Sri Lanka; once the Arab sea traders called it Serendib, and in the eighteenth century Horace Walpole created a fanciful story about three princes who reigned there, and who had the enchanting habit of stumbling across wonderful things quite by chance. Thus was the English language enriched by the word serendipity, without its inventor, who never traveled to the East, ever really knowing why.

But as it happens Walpole was more accurate than he could ever have known. Ceylon is really a kind of postlapsarian treasure island, where every sensual gift of the tropics is available, both to reward temptation and to beguile and charm. So there are cinnamon and coconut, coffee and tea; there are sapphires and rubies, mangoes and cashews, elephants and leopards; and every where a rich, hot, sweetly moist breeze, scented by the sea, spices and blossoms. And there are the girls - young, chocolate-skinned, ever giggling naked girls with sleek wet bodies, rosebud nipples, long hair, coltish legs, and scarlet and purple petals folded behind their ears who play in the white Indian Ocean surf and who run, quite without shame, along the cool wet sands on their way back home.

It was these nameless village girls - the likes of whom had frolicked naked in the Singhalese surf for scores of years past, just as they still do that young William Chester Minor remembered most. It was these young girls of Ceylon, he later said he was sure, who had unknowingly set him on the spiral path to his eventually insatiable lust, to his incurable madness, and to his final perdition.”

In April 1910, Home Secretary Winston Churchill (later Prime Minister) on requests made granted permission to transfer him to an asylum in America. After living eighty-five years and nine months he had died peacefully in his     sleep on Friday 26th March 1920.     .

The author of the book Simon Winchester was living in Oxford in 1980s and he records, “One summer’s day a friend who worked at the university press invited me into a warehouse to look at a forgotten treasure. It was a jumbled pile of metal plates, each measuring little more than seven inches by ten, and - as I found when I picked one up - as heavy as the devil. They were the discarded letterpress printing plates from which the Oxford English Dictionary had been made. I chose three of the plates, reading the backward type as best I could in the dim and dusty light. Two of them I later gave away. But I kept one: It was the complete page 452 of the great dictionary’s volume 5: It encompassed the words humoral to humor, it had been edited in 1901 or so, and set in type in 1902.”
Kasi Silva

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