16th July 2000

Front Page|
Editorial/Opinion| Business| Sports|
Sports Plus| Mirror Magazine

The Sunday Times on the Web


Richard Boyle critically analyses Simon Winchester's work and points out the Sri Lankan words in the Oxford English Dictionary

The Professor and the madman

Over the past nine months there have been several articles in the Colombo press with respect to Simon Winchester's best-seller The Professor and the Madman (New York, 1998), and the connection with 19th century Ceylon that the madman of the title enjoyed. In the latest ("Murder, Madness and Love of Words," Sunday Times, June 18, 2000), Noel Crusz is too lenient with Winchester in that he overlooks the glaring inaccuracies in the author's research regarding the island.

The story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the collaboration between the editor, Professor James Murray, and the Jaffna-born, certified insane convicted murderer, Doctor William Minor, is unquestionably a fascinating one. Of all the volunteer readers who assisted James Murray, William Minor stands out from most of the others. He does so for two principal reasons: his enormous contribution to the project, and the extraordinary circumstances in which he undertook the work. As it happens, Minor, the American lover of words who ended up in Broadmoor asylum, The Professor and the madmanEngland, not only had a Ceylon connection, but also considered the root of his insanity to be the sensuous images of Ceylonese girls he had witnessed as a young man.

It is a story that Winchester relates with considerable verve. However, there are, as I say, elementary factual errors concerning his references to the island. Consequently, it is possible–indeed, it has been claimed - that there are inaccuracies present in other parts of the book. As Mark Rozzo wrote in the Washington Post, "we're never quite sure when Winchester is cleaving to facts or when he is fictionalizing."

Before I purchased the book Online last year I checked out some of the reviews posted by readers. Among many lavishing praise there was one critical review with the heading, "Winchester missed significant information," which caught my eye. It was by Mitchell Redman, a New York playwright who wrote The Dictionary (1995), a play centred on the James Murray –William Minor relationship. In his review, Redman detailed inaccuracies in Winchester's American research and how he had overlooked crucial facts. He ended with the words: "The Professor and the Madman focuses on some of the same fascinating aspects of the collaboration of Murray and Minor that first inspired me to dramatize the story. It is important, however, to look beyond the surface of material Winchester presents as truth."

The unearthing of the inaccuracies regarding Sri Lanka prompted me to contact Redman. He claims that it was he who uncovered Minor's Ceylon connection: "This came to me through a genealogy of the family, which I located at the Connecticut Historical Society, and through records at Yale," he has communicated to me. Strangely, though, in the Acknowledgements to his book Winchester mentions Mitchell Redman as having "filled in some details of Minor's later personal life," rather than his beginnings.

Instead, the author thanks "the librarians and staff at the Yale Divinity Library who told me much about William Minor's early life in Ceylon." Pat Higgins, an Englishwoman living in Washington State, is also acknowledged for providing "several fascinating tips" on the "Ceylon end of the Minor family story." Either the librarians and Ms. Higgins have given Winchester inaccurate geographical and other information, or the author himself has failed in his grasp of the facts.

Winchester begins to relate the Ceylon history of the Minor family by introducing the island as a transgressor's paradise. "Ceylon," he states (never putting the name in its historical context), "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 sinners, an island limbo for those who yielded to temptation.

" . . . Once the Arab traders called it Serendib, and in the 18th 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 travelled to the East, ever really knowing why."

That serendipity has enriched the language, as Winchester rightly maintains, is without doubt. Nevertheless, there are misconceptions surrounding the derivation and definition of serendipity which Winchester has fallen foul of, albeit not necessarily through any fault of his own.

The most popular and persistent misconception is that Walpole was the creator of The Three Princes of Serendip. This error can be found in countless books and articles. A recent example is contained in a leading ecological magazine. Enumerating newly discovered species of freshwater crab, the writer states: "Walpole's book, The Three Princes of Serendip (1754), was about three princes who, in Sri Lanka, experienced serendipity – the making of happy and unexpected discoveries."

In fact, The Three Princes of Serendip was compiled and published in 1557 by a Venetian, Michele Tramezzino, who specialized not only in romances, but theology, history, veterinary surgery and duelling as well. A more accurate translation of the Italian title is The Peregrination of the Three Young Sons of the King of Serendippo. It was almost two centuries later, in 1754, that Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity from an episode in this tale about the quest for a missing camel.

For the sake of accuracy, and as the sole English translation – contained in Serendipity and The Three Princes (Oklahoma, 1965) - is scarce, I should also mention that the three princes did not reign in Serendip as Winchester suggests. Their father, the King, was very much alive during the course of their adventures, which took place elsewhere than Serendip, most probably India. The eldest prince became King of Serendip on his father's death, while the younger brothers married princesses in the lands of their peregrination.

Winchester has made clever and extensive use of the OED in writing about its compilation as well as Minor's contribution and mental condition, quoting whole entries for words relevant to the text of his book at the heads of chapters. Such words utilized in this way to give added piquancy include murder, polymath, philology, lunatic, sesquipedalian, bedlam, catchword, denouement and diagnosis. Perhaps he considered using serendipity, or at least looked it up out of curiosity. Surprising to relate, however, the OED entry for serendipity is deficient in its derivation and definition, I believe.

First of all, while attributing the word to Walpole, the OED is not specific about the authorship of The Three Princes of Serendip. Most important, though, is that the OED is responsible for perpetuating the other main misconception regarding serendipity. This is contained in the OED's limited, populist definition of the word a definition that is at variance with Walpole's original meaning. His explanation of serendipity centres on the heroes of the tale, who, he says, "were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of."

The OED definition (2nd edition, Oxford, 1989), "the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident," does not meet Walpole's prescription of a gift for discovery by accident and sagacity while in pursuit of something else. These ingredients are cumulative and all should be mentioned in the ideal dictionary definition. This deficiency, which has been duplicated in other dictionaries, has resulted in the belief that "accidental discovery" is synonymous with serendipity. Furthermore, the word happy is no substitute for sagacity.

I harp on the word serendipity because Winchester makes ample use of it throughout his book, most pivotally in the final paragraph, where he talks of the enduring experience he undergoes when he comes across Minor's name in the Acknowledgements to the OED. " . . . The finding of Minor's name presents perhaps the finest examples of the kind of serendipitous moment for which OED is justly famous," he declares. "And few would disagree that serendipity, in dictionaries, is a most splendid thing indeed."

Provided the experience conforms to Walpole's precise meaning, there is no doubt that the serendipitous moment is a most pleasant aspect of bibliographical, lexicographic, etymological and allied research. As has been noted by H. A. I. Goonetilleke in the preface to A Bibliography of Ceylon: Volume One (Zurich, 1970): "The magical sensations of serendipity have assailed me throughout the highways and byways of this bibliographical pilgrimage."

According to Winchester, Minor's missionary parents, Eastman and Lucy, arrived in Ceylon in March 1834 and were "settled in the mission station in a village called Manepay, on the island's northeast coast, close to the British naval station at Trincomalee." However, as any schoolchild knows, Manepay (Manipay) is located in the Jaffna peninsula, some 140 kilometres north of Trincomalee. It is hardly nearby Trincomalee: 140 kilometres is a considerable distance in an island the size of Sri Lanka.

In June 1834, just three months after the Minors' arrival, their son William was born. Two years later, a daughter followed. Soon afterwards, however, Lucy Minor died of consumption. On reading this, I realized here was one piece of information I could check in my own library. It did not take me long to find Serial No. 862 in John Penry Lewis' List of Inscriptions on Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon (Colombo, 1913), which records that Lucy B. Minor died on January 28, 1837. In fact, she was the first person to be buried in the graveyard of the "America Mission, Uduvil, Jaffna District." That Lucy Minor was buried at Uduvil, close to Manipay, suggests she and her husband were indeed stationed in the Jaffna peninsula.

Winchester tells us that Eastman Minor set off with his young son William on a journey to Singapore to find another partner among the mission communities there, and that, "he left his little girl in charge of a pair of missionaries in a Singhalese village called Oodooville." The fact that Eastman Minor left his daughter at Oodooville (Uduvil) is further evidence that he was stationed at nearby Manipay.

The author is, of course, mistaken in calling Uduvil a "Singhalese village". This regrettable error prompted Tissa Devendra to remark in "A Madman from Manipay and the Oxford Dictionary" (Sunday Island, September 26, 1999): "Little does Winchester imagine what prime grist these yarns would provide for the on-going homelands controversy."

Elsewhere, Winchester talks of the "Singhalese surf" of the Jaffna peninsula. This caused Devendra to comment: "I wonder whether the Tiger diaspora will now consign Winchester to a terrible fate for locating Manipay and Uduvil in a blissful region wafted by 'sweetly moist breezes' from the 'Singhalese surf.' On the other hand, Winchester provides ample ammunition for the foes of the homelands concept to prove that Manipay and Uduvil were Sinhalese villages 150 years ago!"

In Singapore Eastman Minor found a new partner, whose name was Judith Taylor. They returned to Jaffna and then travelled south to Colombo for the marriage, which took place shortly before Christmas 1839. Once back in the Jaffna peninsula, missionary work resumed. We are told that Judith Taylor was as tireless as her husband, that she ran the local school, "learned Singhalese, and taught it to her clearly very intelligent elder stepchild as well as, in due course, to her own six children."

It is Winchester's contention that by making use of the large mission library at Manipay, William Minor achieved a higher standard of education than he would have back in America. Moreover, Winchester goes on to suggest that Minor also absorbed much local culture and language, due in part to his travels around the Jaffna peninsula in the company of his parents. "By the time he was twelve he spoke good Singhalese and is supposed to have had a fair grounding in Burmese, as well as some Hindi and Tamil," he states.

In the course of several pages, Winchester twice uses the word Singhalese when surely he must mean Tamil, for the likelihood is that Tamil would have been the language that Judith Minor learned and that William Minor spoke well, and Sinhala the language in which he had a "fair grounding."

While the subject of William Minor and his contribution to the OED has been written about before - primarily in Caught in the Web of Words (Oxford, 1977), by K. M. Elisabeth Murray, grand-daughter of James Murray - Winchester had the advantage of being the first person to gain access to Minor's medical files. These files contain doctors' notes taken during interviews with Minor in which he is supposed to reveal his adolescent fascination for the Tamil girls he lived alongside with in the Jaffna peninsula.

Minor was to tell his doctors that he was thirteen when he first started to enjoy "lascivious thoughts" about the young girls around him in the Jaffna peninsula. These girls Winchester himself lasciviously describes as: "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 ñ 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 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."

By the time he was fourteen, Minor's parents decided to send him to the United States "well away from the temptations of the tropics." He went to live with his Uncle Alfred in New Haven, where he began studying medicine at Yale University. This marks the end of the references to Ceylon in The Professor and the Madman.

Many years later, when Minor began his incarceration at Broadmoor, he contacted Murray and volunteered his services. After digesting the editor's instructions, Minor settled down to trawl through his considerable and unusual library (shipped from America) for words that interested him, as well as the illustrative quotations to support them. Over the years he was to provide Murray with tens of thousands. Winchester informs us that many of the words that took Minor's interest "were Anglo-Indian, reflecting his birthplace: There were bhang, brinjal, catamaran, cholera, chunam and cutcherry. He liked brick-tea."

While these Anglo-Indian words are used in Sri Lankan English, Winchester is probably unaware that there is a separate category of Anglo-Sri Lankan words in the OED that truly reflects Minor's birthplace. According to my research, there are 67 of these words. They are either of Sinhala origin (such as chena, kurakkan, perahera), English origin (creeper, hook-money, shark-charmer), or miscellaneous origin (cabook, jargoon, marmala-water). Further research at the Archives of the Oxford University Press will, I hope, reveal if Minor contributed any illustrative quotations for Anglo-Sri Lankan words, most likely those of miscellaneous origin. Therein may lie the most significant connection that Minor had with Ceylon.

Having taken Winchester to task for his inaccuracies, it must be stated that at least he covered the Ceylon connection in his book - although whether he would have done so in such detail if not for the factor of the sensuous young girls, is open to question. What often happens with biographical studies with Ceylon/Sri Lanka connections is that such connections are marginalized if they are not of vital importance. For instance, there is a newly published book on Daniel Defoe that does not mention the influence of Robert Knox on his writings. Similarly, an otherwise comprehensive catalogue of a recent major exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron photographs in the United States relegates to a footnote the extraordinary work that this pioneer photographer accomplished during her sojourn in Ceylon.

One of the main problems with The Professor and the Madman is that it has popularized the Murray - Minor relationship in the making of the OED at the expense of the many other scholars and volunteer readers who brought the Dictionary into being. Those who wish to know more about this subject should read Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the Untrodden Forest (Oxford, 2000). Edited by Lynda Mugglestone, this work comprises a dozen essays on such aspects as the early history of the OED, the readers and editors who contributed to it, the sources that were used, questions of inclusiveness and correctness, and the thorny problems of meaning. It justifiably claims to be "the most wide-ranging account yet published of the creation of one of the great canonical works of the twentieth century."

In it, one can read of another colourful, American-born, but England-domiciled, volunteer contributor to the OED called Fitzedward Hall. He had originally come to London from India, but had been dismissed from the India Office, by his own account on the (unfounded) charge of being both a hopeless drunkard and a foreign spy.

He moved to the country, and after his marriage broke up, became a recluse and devoted the rest of his life to the dictionary project.

The extent of the American contribution to the OED is little known, and certainly not mentioned by Simon Winchester. But as Redman writes in his review of The Professor and the Madman: "From the very beginning Americans had the right to claim that the Dictionary was, to a significant extent, a creation of their own making. In Murray's first years of editing the OED, fully one half of the 800 volunteer readers with whom he worked were American. James Murray felt that his most avid support came from the United States. He said, 'It is Americans upon whom I depend above all.'"


Index Page
Front Page
Sports Plus
Mirrror Magazine

More Plus

Return to Plus Contents


Plus Archives

Front Page| News/Comment| Editorial/Opinion| Plus| Business| Sports| Sports Plus| Mirror Magazine

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Presented on the World Wide Web by Infomation Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Hosted By LAcNet