Thursday 24 November 2022

Smita Jain, Short Story 2022 Shortlist

Of Word and the Wordsmith



Sir James Murray took a deep breath and wriggled his wrists before continuing to write. The sixty-five-year-old had been writing similar letters for the past eight years. The change of ruling party had not made any difference in the replies he received from the government officials.

William Chester Minor was a threat to society and could not be released from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

Murray clenched his fists. Minor’s release from the Broadmoor asylum was as important to him as the publication of the completed volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary.

He scribbled furiously for another fifteen minutes and addressed the finished letter to Winston Churchill, the new home secretary of Great Britain. Satisfied, he glanced around the corrugated iron room lined with wooden planks, bookshelves, and hundreds of thousands of pigeon holes containing the quotation slips he received from all parts of England, some as far as the USA. The workplace never failed to enthuse him, although he still preferred the smaller scriptorium built on the grounds of Mill Hill School.

Murray had spent almost his entire life publishing the dictionary, becoming a reluctant ‘Sir’ during the process. Yet it seemed like yesterday.


Part I

Sir James Augustus Henry Murray



“What makes you think I am the best person to edit a comprehensive English dictionary?” Thirty-seven-year-old Murray asked Frederick Furnivall. The forty-nine-year-old founder of the Early English text society had come to Murray with a proposal.

“We are looking at a complete re-examination of the English language. The new dictionary would be a comprehensive repository of vocabulary and usage of words from the Early Middle English period onward. This job is intended for the one who loves etymology and will have the patience to see the project through,” Furnivall replied. “Being in the council of the Philological Society of London, you are aware of our efforts to come out with this dictionary since 1857. I now realise I need someone more competent and disciplined for the job. And there is no better candidate for it than the one who gave up a lucrative bank job to devote more time to words.”

Furnivall didn’t mention that all his other choices had declined the offer. The relative unknown James Murray, a teacher at the Mill High School, was his last hope before he abandoned the burning desire for which he had no discipline.

Murray took leisurely sips of tea from his cup. Languages and words were indeed his first love. Claiming an intimate acquaintance with Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish and Latin, familiarity to a lesser degree with the Portuguese, Vaudois and Provençal dialects, a tolerable affinity to Dutch, German and Danish, and useful knowledge of the Celtic, Slavonic, Russian, and Hebrew, Murray was also engaged in close studies of Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic. He had quit his administrative job with the Chartered Bank of India the previous year to return full-time to teaching. Ada Agnes, his wife, often teased him about spending more time in the library than with his family.

Murray met Furnivall’s eye. In the circle of lexicographers, Furnivall was renowned for his love of publishing old English manuscripts and his lack of leadership skills to motivate his team of dictionary volunteers.

“What is the timeline?” Murray asked.

“I have envisaged this project as a four-volume, 6400-page work that would take a decade to complete.”

Ten years was long and yet optimistic. Murray would have little time to devote to his family between the dictionary and school. A prospect that didn’t bother him. Though he admired Ada and his children, his interest in personal pleasures had diminished with the death of his first wife, Maggie.

“I want complete freedom in this role. Your present team of volunteers are poorly trained. I will recruit a new volunteer team to read texts and record quotations. They would need to be suitably rewarded for sustaining their motivation and efforts. Do you agree?”

Furnivall nodded. “You will be in the driver’s seat of the project.”

“Very well. I accept your proposal.”

The older man coughed delicately. “We haven’t discussed your compensation.”

“Oh, that is a small matter. Whatever amount you have in mind for me is fine.”

Murray didn’t envisage at the time that it would take more than fifty years to complete the project.


Volunteers Needed

Do you love English words? Are you fascinated with the origin of the English language?

If so, we need your help compiling the most comprehensive English dictionary.

Send as many quotations as possible for ordinary words as well as rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, and peculiar words on paper slips showing how their meanings and usage changed over time.

The reward of a job well-done is to have done it. Nevertheless, you will be further rewarded. Contact the undersigned.

Sincerely grateful,

James Murray

Within three days of Murray officially taking charge as the editor, The Times and twenty other leading newspapers carried advertisement pamphlets soliciting help from volunteers worldwide for the dictionary. He taught during the day and guided his team of volunteers to arrange, sort and label the paper slips in the evening, realising that the unorganised volume of work done before him was not insubstantial.

A month into his role, Ada knocked at her husband’s study door and struggled to walk on the floor without trampling on papers. The window curtains were invisible amid the mountain of documents reaching the ceiling. The lean, bearded figure who examined the paper slip with a magnifying glass was almost obscured by the pile of papers on the adjoining desk.

“How do you work in this mess?” She asked, handing out more paper slips that had come by post. “Every day you receive more mail than the day before. This room is too small for your efforts, and I don’t want our house to be flooded with papers.”

Murray smiled at his wife. Ada always supported him in his work, seldom bothering him with household duties.

“You are right, dear,” he said. “I need a proper filing system with ample space for these quotation slips.”

“Shouldn’t that be the publisher’s concern?” Ada asked.


“The publisher should provide you a building to keep the work safe or the funds to get it built.”

Ada’s words reverberated in Murray’s ears long after she left.

He had been doing it all wrong!

Apart from the requirement for professional staff and robust pigeonholes, it would be far better to get the work supervised now. If the publisher were to suggest amendments later, it would be herculean to revisit the finished piece.

“I will start talking to the Oxford University Press, the Cambridge University Press, and a couple of other parties associated with the Philological Society in the past,” Furnivall said when Murray discussed this with him in the evening.

“You mean we. I will not rest until I get a building to edit in peace.”

Furnivall realised there was no escaping the zeal of this youth.


“And what purpose will this new dictionary serve, Mr Murray? We already have the Johnson dictionary.” The delegate of the Oxford University Press peered through his monocles.

It had taken two years for Furnivall and Murray to arrange this meeting. With Cambridge declining their proposal, this was their last chance to get a publisher.

“The Johnson and the other dictionaries are incomplete and deficient,” Murray replied.

Another delegate raised an eyebrow. “You expect us to take your word, Mr Murray, about the inadequacies of modern dictionaries?”

“Not my word alone,” Murray retorted. “The Philological Society of London, of which Mr Furnivall here is the President, formed a committee that, after a thorough study, made a report titled On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries. Here is a copy of the same for your perusal.” He handed each of the three people a copy of the thousand-page voluminous study. The delegates seemed impressed as Murray continued, “Incomplete coverage of obsolete words, inconsistent coverage of families of related terms, incorrect dates for the earliest use of words, and inadequate distinction among synonyms are some of the glaring shortcomings of these dictionaries.

“There is a genuine need for a comprehensive repository of words. Who better than Oxford to publish what has never been published before?”

There was a pause as the gentlemen from Oxford contemplated Murray’s words. Furnivall and Murray exchanged glances. A no from Oxford would spell the death knell for the project.

“Should we decide to commission this project, what support would you require from our end?” The monocle-wearing person asked.

“Compensation for the support editorial staff and me,” Murray replied. “The sheer number of slips I am receiving calls for two assistant editors and three to four support staff. I also require a building with sufficient wooden planks, bookshelves and pigeonholes for the quotation slips.”

“Where would you find land to construct this building of yours?”

“The Scriptorium would come up in the garden of my Mill Hill house; there’s sufficient space there.”

“You seem to have thought of everything, Mr Murray. How long would the project take, you said? Ten years?”

“Thereabouts. Might take slightly more with all the effort involved.”

“Hmm. We will need some time to complete the formalities. Meanwhile, we will loan you the amount required for this scriptorium. We expect you not to go to any other publisher till you hear back from us.”

Murray felt his heart come out of his body. “Can we consider then that you would be publishing the Oxford English Dictionary?”

“You may consider that we are contemplating the proposition. Mind you, our diligence process and contractual formalities take a long time. Until then, continue with the work as usual.”

Once outside the precincts of Oxford, Murray embraced Furnivall before leaping high into the air.

“Yes!!!” he screamed. “We did it.”

“You did it, Murray. Well done,” Furnivall said.

Twenty-one years after it was conceived, the dictionary had a name and a home.


“The Oxford University Press doesn’t seem happy even after the first fascicle,” Murray told Furnivall, throwing a letter on the table in disgust. The latter had dropped in at the scriptorium to hand Murray a few finished quotation slips.

The room teemed with volunteers and assistant editors in all corners; some sorted quotation slips in the pigeon holes, others read books and marked new words, and a handful worked on new quotation slips. More than a thousand quotation slips arrived daily at the scriptorium, and the building contained more than four million quotation slips. Six years ago, when the corrugated iron building was completed, no one had imagined that the space would fall short.

Two months earlier, on 1st February 1884, the 352-page volume of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles containing words from A to Ant had come out.

“The OUP says that work is going on at a snail’s pace, and they would prefer to closely supervise the editorial arrangements,” Murray responded to Furnivall’s raised eyebrow. “They have agreed to provide me with more assistant editors, provided I move to Oxford.”

“Oxford may not be a bad home for your family. You have long given up your teaching job, so there’s nothing holding you here. Expect for this building,” Furnivall said.

“OUP has offered to replicate the scriptorium, at a larger scale, on the grounds of the house that I select for myself in Oxford,” Murray said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“What makes you say they are unhappy, then?”

“There is another condition. They want me to hire a second editor to work in parallel, outside my supervision. I don’t want to share the work I love.”

“Don’t go by emotions in business matters, even if it is a business you love. I also loved this work and yet handed over the reins to you. That’s one of my life’s best decisions. Think about what you can do with having a co-editor of your choice at your side.”

Murray stared at Furnivall before an exclamation from another corner interrupted them.

“Now that’s some word!” Wilfrid George, Murray’s third son, proclaimed.

“What word, George?” Murray asked, sensing the excitement.

“Guz. It is an Indian measure of length. Here’s a long quotation slip, tracing the word from its beginning to its usage today.”

“Who has sent the slip?”

“WC Minor, Father; he must be as much in love with words as you.”

Murray smiled and made a mental note to write to Minor again. Minor had been sending them over two dozen handwritten quotation slips every week for the last five years, prompting Murray to especially acknowledge Minor’s contributions on the preface of the first fascicle. That acknowledgement seemed incomplete with each passing week.

He turned back to Furnivall. “You have a point,” he conceded. “More hands on the deck would speed up the dictionary’s completion. Ada and I will travel to Oxford this weekend to scout for a suitable home.”

Furnivall bid goodbye, afraid to let the emotions show on his face. He would miss Murray at Mill Hill, but his protégé was meant for greater things at Oxford.


“I felt particularly pleased to read your acknowledgement of poor Doctor Minor’s contribution at the dictionary’s preface,” the American visitor told Murray. Murray sat straight on his chair as the visitor continued, “As a fellow American, I am glad to see our poor Dr Minor get some positive recognition in a foreign land.”

“Poor Dr Minor?” Murray enquired.

“You know he is in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, don’t you?”

Murray’s eyes widened. “Isn’t he a doctor there.”

The visitor shook his head. “Sentenced to life. For murder, no less. The jury adjudged him insane; hence he is not in prison.”

The most prolific contributor to the dictionary was a madman! An astonished Murray left his visitor speaking halfway and dashed to another corner of the room, where one of the staff members wheeled in with a pushcart full of letters addressed to “Mr Murray, Oxford.” Such was the volume of mails sent to Murray that the Oxford post office had erected a special post box outside Murray’s Banbury Road house.

“What would be Minor’s contribution to the dictionary’s fascicles we have published so far?” he asked George.

A surprised George replied, “At least a quarter.”

Murray slowed his stride, determined to learn more about Minor’s background.


Part II

William Chester Minor



“By the verdict of the majority of the jury, I hereby pronounce the defendant, William Chester Minor, not guilty, by reason of insanity, of the murder of George Merrett,” the judge of Lambeth circuit court declared. Pandemonium broke out before he could bang his gavel on the table.

“Order, order,” the judge shouted, looking directly at Minor. “The accused is nevertheless a threat to society. I order him to be sent to the Criminal Lunatics Asylum in Broadmoor at the village of Crowthorne, Berkshire, until the pleasure of her majesty.”

Minor blinked. He had yearned for the death penalty.

As the prison staff accompanied Minor out of the courtroom, he stopped at the edge of the front row, where Merrett’s heavily pregnant widow sat.

“Forgive me, dear Eliza, for killing the father of your children. God knows that the devil had come over me.”

Eliza looked at the gaunt man with an unruly beard as he walked away.

The ride from Lambeth to Broadmoor was a long one. Minor wiped the sweat off his brow and wanted to take off his shirt but hesitated in the company of the three men sitting opposite him. He closed his eyes. The face of a crying and pleading Irish man in uniform came into view. Minor saw himself engraving a capital “D” on the soldier’s forehead, branding him a deserter.

“No,” the Irishman screamed. Minor opened his eyes with a start.

“Are you alright?” one of the three men asked.

The reply got stuck in Minor’s throat.

He wasn’t fine. He would never be.


Born in Ceylon in 1834 to Congregational church missionaries from New England, Minor lived with relatives in the United States since the age of fourteen while attending the Russell Military Academy. Subsequently, he enrolled at the Yale School of Medicine, supporting his student years with part-time employment as an instructor at the Academy. More than his specialised degree in comparative anatomy, Minor considered his stint as an assistant on the 1864 revision of Webster’s Dictionary to be the highlight of his Yale tenure.

After a brief spell at the Knight General Hospital in New Haven, Minor joined the Union Army as a surgeon, serving at the Battle of Wilderness in 1864. The battlefield required him to don multiple roles, including that of a combatant. He also had to brandish the letter “D” on the face of the defeated soldiers. When the Civil War ended, Minor was relieved to resume working with scalpels and knives in New York City.

That was when the nightmares began.

All sorts of Irishmen started to haunt him day and night. One moment he was alone in his room, and the next moment someone was at his throat, trying to kill him. Minor would wake up sweating from top to toe in the middle of his sleep. The imaginary Irish figures also infiltrated his gang of colleagues at work, leading Minor to shun his colleagues during the day and avoid sleep at night.

Boredom, loneliness and fatigue took him to the arms of prostitutes in NY’s red-light district. The army transferred him to a remote post in Florida. Within a year, his deteriorating mental health became apparent to all, and he was sent to St Elizabeth’s Hospital, a lunatic asylum in Washington DC. The Irishmen followed him to Washington and London, where he was transferred.

Minor was smoking a pipe at his home in Tenison street, Lambeth, when he saw a figure coming after him with a knife. He took out the pistol from his holster and shot the man. The image continued to charge, and Minor bolted out of the door. People stared at the half-dressed figure running in the streets early in the morning, but the pistol kept them at bay.

Minor turned a corner and collided with a man. “I am not going to let you kill me,” Minor shouted at the astounded man and shot him on the forehead. He had finally got the better of someone baying for his blood.

The world went blank.

After a long, restful sleep, Minor woke up in handcuffs at the Lambeth police station. The ‘enemy’ he had killed turned out to be George Merrett, who was on his way to work to support his family of six children, himself, and his pregnant wife, Eliza. Minor fervently prayed for the jury to send him to the gas chamber.

Instead, he was on the road to Broadmoor.


“Is the patient dangerous?” The man at the administration desk asked his colleague who had accompanied Minor on the journey to Broadmoor.

The other person went through the sheaf of papers in a thick blue file before replying, “He was a model prisoner as per the police records. As long as he is not near a pistol or gun, he is fine.”

“Hmm. Any source of income?”

“Pension from the US Army.”

The administrator raised an eyebrow. “US Army?”

“Our man was a surgeon there.”

The administrator looked at Minor for some time before saying, “Sir, I am allotting you a single quarter at the family unit in Broadmoor. The two-bedroom house would be comfortable for your stay.”

“No,” Minor wanted to shout. They will be after him again. The nightmares had ceased in prison. He wanted to go back there.

“Thank you,” he instead said.

“You can be supplied with five outside objects in the quarters at your own expense, per the rules. You can also walk a mile outside the campus during the allotted hours, accompanied by your attendant. What all would you like to include in the list?”

“Is there a bookshop or library nearby?” Minor asked.

The administrator tried to recall any of Broadmoor’s other inmates asking a similar question in the past. He could not.

“There’s a reading room at the campus. The bookshop is on the first opposite kerb outside the campus, a minute away.”

“I would need three things - Books, Newspapers and writing stationery. As many as I can get,” Minor said.

“Very well, Sir. I have made a note. Visiting days are….”

“I won’t have any visitors,” Minor cut him off.

But he did get a visitor. The one who changed his life’s trajectory.


“A visitor to see you, Sir,” the guard conveyed to Minor through the intercom. “I informed her today is no visitor’s day, but she told me it will be heartbreaking not to be able to meet you after coming all the way from Lambeth.”

“What’s her name?” A surprised Minor asked. He had not received any visitors so far in his two years at Broadmoor.

“Eliza Merrett, Sir.”

Minor took a deep breath. Though his antiquarian books gave him company, he struggled to find meaning and purpose in life. In Eliza, he saw the hope of death.

“Send her in, please.”

Minor straightened the cushions and organised the centre table of his living room before the doorbell rang.

Eliza was dressed in white and held a sizeable newspaper-wrapped parcel in her hand.

The two looked at each other.

“How are you, Mr Minor?” Eliza broke the awkward silence.

“I am being punished for my crime, as I should, though it is not enough. But come inside, won’t you?”

The two sat on either side of the table in the living room.

“What brings you here?” Minor asked.

“Good times have returned. I am engaged to be married. My children will have a father now,” Eliza started.

“Congratulations! I am so happy for you.”

“So am I. I will never forget George, but I must move on.” Eliza gulped before continuing, “Yesterday, my thoughts went to the last day in the courtroom, and your image flashed on my mind. You apologised to me two years ago. I have come here today to let you know that I forgive you, Mr Minor, for shooting my George; you didn’t know what you were doing.”

Eliza burst into tears. Minor’s eyes were moist as he replied, “That is very kind of you. But I don’t deserve it.”

“We all deserve God’s forgiveness. I brought something that will help you to move on.” Eliza pointed to the parcel beside her on the sofa. Minor got up to help his guest unwrap the package. The newspapers revealed the most beautiful painting of Jesus Christ he had ever seen.

The Lord’s eyes were directed at Minor. He saw acceptance and forgiveness in them.

“Thank you,” Minor mustered.

“My pleasure. I am feeling so much better now.”

Eliza bid goodbye after some time, promising to visit again.

Minor saw the crumpled newspapers on the floor. Never one to let the opportunity to read anything go, he started reading The Times.

His eyes went to an advertisement.

Volunteers Needed

Do you love English words?



Contact the undersigned.

Sincerely grateful,

James Murray

Someone was looking for people to compile words, their meaning and usage. The very things he loved!

Minor’s eyes shone as he got up, walked to the study table and noted Murray’s address.

He had found his life’s purpose.


“That’s a lot of correspondence!” The new Estate Manager of the Broadmoor Asylum commented to his deputy. The table in the mail room was invisible under the envelopes. Some of the letterheads had found their way to the floor.

“The middle of every week is when Minor’s letters go out to Oxford. The post office dispatches a special vehicle to collect these letters.”

“You mean WC Minor? The madman from America?”

“Mad he is, but not only in the way you mean it. All he does is read books and write words on paper. ‘Compiling words and illustrating their uses,’ as he told me during one of my visits. I sometimes wonder whether he brushes and takes a bath or straightaway goes to his writing desk after getting up in the morning. If he ever sleeps in the first place, that is.”

“Surely, you are exaggerating.”

“You will find out I am not. All the rooms in his quarters, including the kitchen, are full of books. More envelopes than I can count, addressed to James Murray, have been going out without fail every week for the last sixteen of the eighteen years that he had been with us! Last year, he had a bad bout of pneumonia and could barely move from the bed, but those letters went without fail. I wonder whether they would have been able to publish the dictionary but for him,” the deputy estate manager concluded.

The new manager’s eyes went from his subordinate to the pile of letters on the table. The asylum posting would not be as dull as he had envisaged.


Part III

Murray and Minor



“You have a visitor, Sir,” the asylum guard announced.

Minor, in the middle of writing a tricky quotation slip, was irritated at the interruption. But not meeting Eliza would be rude.

“Send her in,” he spoke on the intercom.

“It is a man, Sir. James Murray is here to meet you.”

Minor thought his ears were playing tricks. “Who?”

“James Murray. Shall I send him in?”


Minor walked swiftly to his living room and began removing books from the sofa and centre table to make room for his distinguished guest. He was trying to figure out the arrangement of books on the ground when the doorbell rang.

With a thumping heart, Minor went to the front door.

A tall man with a white beard, black coat, and matching academic hat first embraced him warmly before setting foot inside the quarters.

“William,” Murray said. “I am so glad to see you. Please accept my apologies for not meeting you sooner.”

“There’s nothing to apologise for, Professor. You are kind to drop in here.”

“Call me James, please. I am not a professor, just a lexicographer.” Murray put an arm around Minor shoulders as he stepped into the latter’s living room.

“I am afraid my quarter is a mess,” Minor said.

“I work in a similar mess daily from 6 am to 11 pm. Anyway, a big thank you for your contribution to the OED. We would not have been able to publish the eight fascicles of the omnibus without your support. I would not call you a volunteer; your work goes much beyond that,” Murray remarked, his face full of emotions.

“This work has made me live for as long as I have. I don’t know when day turns to night and night to day while preparing the quotation slips. They also don’t come to get me when I am immersed in the world of words.

Murray stopped in his tracks. “They? Who are they, and why are they trying to get you?” Murray was fully aware of Minor’s history and condition but still unable to reconcile the wordsmith with a mentally fragile man.

“I will tell you, Professor. But first, have a look at the latest quotation slips I am preparing for you,” he remarked with childlike enthusiasm.

The morning had given way to dusk by the time the two men finished their discussions. A professional association had turned into a personal friendship.


“We started this in 1878 and are sitting in 1899 today. If this project was only about business, we would not have continued for this long.” Murray was addressing a joint press conference with Henry Bradley, OED’s co-editor, protesting against the treatment meted out to them by the officials of the Oxford University Press. “Thirty-Five fascicles, tens of thousands of pages, and complete coverage of alphabets from A to I, but all the OUP cares about are production costs when our priority is coming out with a comprehensive English language dictionary that will stand the test of time for years to come.

“The OED is not our effort alone. It is the volunteers from the public, not confined to Great Britain, to whom we this dictionary. Francis March, an arts college professor in the USA, has been associated with this project since its inception. Then there’s William Chester Minor, who, despite his mental health, has been sending us hundreds of quotation slips every week for the last twenty-five years from Broadmoor. We could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.

“However, our toils and tears matter less than cost controls for the Oxford University Press. Hence we resign from our posts with immediate effect. It is better for us to quit than compromise,” Murray concluded.

The press conference was prominently featured in all leading newspapers the following day. “If the editors feel that the dictionary needs to grow larger, it should; it is an important work and worth the time and money to properly finish,” read a scathing editorial on The Sunday Times. Public opinion resulted in a freer hand for the editors.

“For the first time in years, I am confident we will be able to finish the work,” Murray confided to Bradley.

“The work will get completed, with us or without us,” Bradley said. “The press conference also brought our fellow Minor into the spotlight. How is he keeping, by the way?”

Murray’s face darkened. “Not very well, I am afraid. The quotation slips continue arriving, but the quantities have reduced. A few errors have also started to creep in, very unlike Minor. He repeatedly complains of ‘they’ harassing, taunting and attacking him. I suspect he would have gone off the cliff long ago but for this work.”

Minor’s mental health was soon to deteriorate to the point of no return.


They are carrying him away, again. There are far too many Irishmen for him to count. All their faces are different from the ones he had seen last night and the night before. The Hagia Sophia on his left is fading into the background. What is he doing in Istanbul?!

The car stops in front of what looks like a children’s shelter home. His abductors rough him out and push him into a room. As his eyes adjust to the dark, he sees more than a dozen frightened boys; all are naked.

“Have sex with these boys. All of them,” one of the abductors says in a menacing tone.

“What??? Never. You can kill me for disobeying you; that will be better.”

“What use will your dead body be to us? We will kill these boys if you don’t do what we say. They will die one by one in front of you.”


Minor woke up with a start on the bed of his quarters. Beads of sweat ran down his forehead to his beard. His shirt clung to his body. His pants were wet.

He had managed to escape from his enemies today but might not be so fortunate tomorrow. He could not think of committing sexual acts with those poor boys.

Minor looked around. The glint of the paper knife on the writing desk caught his eye. He had been using this knife for years to separate the long quotation slips so that they fit inside the envelopes sent to Murray.

He jumped off the bed, took off his trousers and dashed to the table. Taking the knife in his right hand, he held his penis with his left. He would cut off the root of the issue.

The shriek from Minor’s mouth woke the entire Broadmoor in the dead of night. The attendant rushing to Minor’s quarters found him slumped on a pool of blood, with a knife in one hand and penis in another.

The poor fellow retched.


Murray visited Minor in the hospital after hearing about the autopenectomy. Minor looked like a person who would have been better dead than alive.

“Professor,” Minor said to Murray, “I am afraid I won’t be able to send quotation slips to you for quite some time. Carry on the good work.”

Murray broke down.

“Minor is not getting the best treatment here. Else his delusions and paranoia would have gone or reduced significantly,” Murray remarked to Bradley later in the day.

“If the treatments administered in Broadmoor are not working, then no other remedy in the country would.”

“Then it is best that he return to his country.”

The silence in the air was punctuated by the shuffle of the papers in the scriptorium.

“He has done so much for the OED,” Murray said after a pause. “It is my turn now to repay him for his efforts.”

“What is on your mind, James?” Bradley asked.

“To petition the government for Minor’s safe deportation to the United States,” Murray said.

“That will take a lot of time and effort to fructify.”

“So be it. Minor needs me. But I will not have as much time to devote to the OED as I do now. I am relying on your strong shoulders, Henry. Look into my share of duties at the scriptorium, too, for some time, will you?”

“I am always there for you, mate. Go for what you think is the right thing to do.”

The two men exchanged glances comprising years of understanding and friendship. Murray was glad that the OUP had been adamant about appointing a co-editor all those years ago; for once, they were right.

For the next eight years, Minor’s release from Broadmoor eclipsed the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary as the most significant cause of Murray’s life. He even chose to miss his knighthood ceremony because it clashed with an appointment with the Home Department for discussion on Minor’s case.




“A letter from the Home Secretary, Father,” George said, placing the envelope at Murray’s desk.

“Must be another rejection letter,” Murray remarked to Bradley. “They make for a nice collection in my drawer.”

“I have heard Churchill is different than his predecessors,” Bradley said.

“He is more polite for sure. He listened without interrupting me once in the thirty-minute meeting, and I lost count of the number of times he smoked on his cigar during our conversation before saying, ‘I will see what I can do, Sir James’ at the end.” Murray reached for the paper knife on his desk. “A polite dismissal, but a dismissal nevertheless,” he said, slitting the tip of the envelope to extract a single sheet of white paper.

“Honourable Sir James,” the letter read, “I am pleased to order William Chester Minor’s release from Broadmoor’s Criminal Lunatic Asylum effective….”

Murray started jumping up and down, much to the consternation of Bradley and other staff members. The last time he was so excited was when the first fascicle of the dictionary was published. Murray was a much younger man at the time.

“Are you alright, James?” Bradley put his hands on Murray’s shoulders.

“You were right about Churchill, Henry. Our man Minor would soon be deported to the United States.” Tears coursed down Murray’s cheeks.

A thunderous clap reverberated across the scriptorium; there was not a single dry eye to be seen. Murray’s efforts had ensured a dignified ending for OED’s most prolific contributor.

Bradley patted Murray’s back. “Time for you, James, to take some of OED’s editorial responsibilities off me now. All the additional responsibilities are making me look older than my years.”

Murray laughed out loud after a long time. It was time to spend more time with the love of his life—The Oxford English Dictionary—once again. There was much to be done still to cross the finish line.

The End


The story is a fictionalised account of real-life incidents. While the names of the characters are real, I have taken creative liberties for the scenes, dialogues and descriptions in the story. The work is intended to be read as fiction and is not intended to be construed as history.

Author’s Note:

Minor was deported back to the United States and resided at St. Elizabeths Hospital. There, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He died in 1920 in Hartford, Connecticut, after being moved in 1919 to the Retreat for the Elderly Insane there.

The 125th and last fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary covered words from Wise to the end of W and was published on 19 April 1928, and the complete dictionary in bound volumes followed immediately, with William Shakespeare the most quoted writer in the completed dictionary.

Neither Murray nor Bradley lived to see the above. Murray died in 1915, having been responsible for words starting with A–D, H–K, O–P, and T, nearly half the finished dictionary. Bradley died in 1923, completing E–G, L–M, S–Sh, St, and W–We. All of Murray’s eleven children helped their father with the dictionary work.

The work to which Murray and Bradley devoted their lives represented an unprecedented achievement in publishing history. The Oxford English Dictionary is recognised as the ultimate authority on the English language.


History of the OED-

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary-

Oxford English Dictionary turns 90, India Today, July 13 2018-

Dr William Minor and the Oxford English Dictionary, Hektoen International Journal-

A good idea doesn’t care who has it, US Campaign, August 15 2019-

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