The story that follows can fairly be said to have two protagonists. One of them is Minor, the murdering soldier from America; and there is one other. To say that a story has two protagonists, or three, or ten, is a perfectly acceptable, unremarkable modern form of speech. It happens, however, that a furious lexicographical controversy once raged over the use of the word – a dispute that helps to illustrate the singular and peculiar way that the Oxford English Dictionary has been constructed and how, when it flexes its muscles, it as a witheringly intimidating authority.

This is the kind of book the Peter Ackroyds and John Banvilles of this world would give their eye-teeth to write. An incisive and witty account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary – with a surprising history of murder and madness interwoven into the tale.

This is, despite the quote above, the story of three men. The aforementioned Dr. W. C. Minor, an American medical doctor who suffered from what we would now recognize as post-traumatic stress and paranoid schizophrenia. Dr James Murray, a gifted polymath with humble beginnings that failed to prevent him from achieving honours and great success as a result of his work as editor on the Oxford Dictionary. Finally this is also the story of George Merrett, the victim of a gunshot to the neck. His murderer was committed to Broadmoor asylum and is recognized by history as one of the most important contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. Unlike Minor, Merrett is largely unremembered and unmourned. This is a book that could not have been written without the sacrifice of his life.

For as a veteran of the American Civil War, Minor was haunted by delusions of pursuit at the hands of Irish deserters from the Union army. He was terrified by the thought of being hunted down by a man he was ordered to brand with a hot iron, as punishment for fleeing the field of battle. The Irish soldiers conscripted to fight the Confederate army initially were willing to fight, with a view to someday returning home to put their newfound skills to use in liberating their own country. Disillusionment soon followed though and Winchester huge numbers of desertions from the Union cause. Minor was also troubled by increasingly disturbed sexual fantasies. No form of treatment for his maladies existed. He was judged completely insane and though not found responsible for the death of George Merrett, locked away for what was judged to be the rest of his natural life in Broadmoor.

Murray’s early life was also touched by tragedy. The loss of his first wife and child before the age of thirty and been forced to eke out a living as a bank clerk despite his prodigious intellectual gifts. Winchester includes an extract from a job application Murray wrote where he claims fluency in over a dozen languages. His fortunes, however, improved with a happy second marriage and the fortunate society he kept with many other learned men, who recommended him for his eventual career as editor of the Dictionary. Despite the efforts of Samuel Johnson, the English were lagging behind the efforts of the French Encyclopédistes and Italian lexicographers. There was no enshrined account of the English language itself, its cultural forms mutable and unaccounted for. What Murray attempted was to collect proven definitions and associations for singular words, drawn from the literature of the time. Volunteers were asked to submit completed lists of words with their origins and usage clearly defined. This proved unwieldy and met with little enthusiasm once the size of the task was glimpsed.

It was with Minor that Murray met great success. The two began to correspond over a number of years, with the American giving little hint as to his circumstances, at first merely submitting his exhaustive work without comment. Winchester argues that this research and study offered Minor relief from his painful delusions. He continued to be troubled, especially at night, by the thought of pursuit by invisible Irishmen, succubae and most disturbingly, children. Yet his work on the dictionary seemed to reflect a particularly erudite and reflective mind. I have always been struck by the phrase a ‘monk’s cell’, as if contemplation was a crime. Minor’s life following the death of Merrett symbolises that contradiction.

I love Winchester’s style of writing, with one phrase in particular just leaping off the page – seamless syrup of insanity. A beautiful, commanding book.