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25 Facts About the Anne of Green Gables Miniseries

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Kindred spirits the world over are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the beloved Anne of Green Gables, which premiered on CBC in December of 1985 (and in America the following year). The four-hour miniseries was adapted from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic 1908 book about an imaginative orphan girl adopted by an elderly brother and sister. Here are a few things you might not have known about the miniseries. 

1. DIRECTOR KEVIN SULLIVAN HADN’T READ THE BOOK BEFORE HE BOUGHT THE RIGHTS. 

Though he was aware of Anne of Green Gables—and vaguely remembered his teacher reading it to his class in fifth grade—Sullivan (who wrote, directed, and produced the miniseries) hadn’t read the book when he was approached by Robert McDonald, president of the Learning Corporation, about making a film version of the novel in the early 1980s. “I thought, ‘Hmm that could be interesting,’” Sullivan recalled. But even then, he didn’t read the book: “I went and contacted the publisher in New York about the rights to Anne of Green Gables, and ... embarked on a very complicated journey into trying to determine who actually held dramatic rights to the novel. At the end of it all, I was able to put the pieces together and actually turn it into a television production.”

2. SULLIVAN FLESHED OUT ANNE’S BACKSTORY.

Montgomery’s novel begins with Rachel Lynde watching Matthew Cuthbert drive a buggy to the train station—where he’s going to pick up an orphan boy, but comes back with Anne instead. Sullivan wanted to go beyond that. “I needed to know who she was before she was brought to Prince Edward Island,” he said. “I could only imagine that a child who had that kind of flamboyant imagination had to have already created her own world of escape and that she must have been extremely lonely and extremely downtrodden.”

So he and co-writer Joe Wiesenfeld started Anne’s story with the cranky Mrs. Hammond and her brood of children, who are mentioned briefly in the book. “What I tried to do,” Sullivan said, “was go back several stages in Anne’s life and depict a world that had aspects of severity and cruelty, and that by the time she reached Prince Edward Island, it was like coming to a dream world.”

3. KATHARINE HEPBURN SUGGESTED HER NIECE BE CAST AS ANNE.

“One day, out of the blue, I had a call from Katharine Hepburn,” Sullivan recalled. The actress had wanted to play Anne Shirley in the 1934 film adaptation of Montgomery’s book, and was disappointed it hadn’t happened. “She offered me an idea,” Sullivan said. “She asked me to go to California and to meet with her niece, Schuyler Grant, and to audition her ... and Schuyler was terrific.” (You can see photos of Grant as Anne here.) But the film’s financiers, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Telefilm Canada, wanted a Canadian actress to play Anne—so they encouraged Sullivan to search the nation for a Canadian actress to play the part. 

4. IT TOOK A YEAR TO FIND THE RIGHT ANNE.

Sullivan’s search took him across the country, from Newfoundland to Vancouver. “I quickly realized through the process that I was not going to find Anne of Green Gables sitting in a field in Saskatchewan—that I really needed someone who was a seasoned performer that would have the ability to play Anne,” he said.

He auditioned 3000 girls for the role, and he actually saw the actress who would finally nab it, Megan Follows, near the beginning of that process. But she looked too old, and her first audition “was almost too contemporary,” he said. “I brought Megan back to do another audition, and this was a real screen test in costume, and the first test that she did really was mediocre.”

Despite the mediocrity, Sullivan eventually called her back again. But there were technical problems with the tape of her second audition, so he asked her to come back yet again. Follows was preparing to leave for a flight to Los Angeles and didn’t have much time—and then, just as she was about to leave, the toilet in her house began to overflow. “It’s spewing over through the floorboards and onto the light fixtures in the downstairs,” she recalled. “There was water pouring out, I’m running out the door, and we’ve tried a plunger; nothing’s working. I got [to the audition] pretty haggled and harassed and finally it just seemed to click ... The piece, it seemed to work much better ... maybe I just needed to be harassed.”

Sullivan agreed. “She was so beside herself and so flummoxed ... that she was totally brilliant,” he said.

Grant, meanwhile, was cast as Diana, Anne’s best friend, and Miranda de Pencier—who had also auditioned to play Anne—was cast as Anne’s frenemy Josie Pye.

5. MEGAN FOLLOWS REALLY WANTED THE PART.

“When I knew that it was going, and that they were going to do it, I kept thinking, ‘If they’re going to make Anne of Green Gables, then I really want to play her,’ because she is one of the most important Canadian characters there are, and one of the best characters for young girls and women that was ever written,” Follows said. “I started writing down on paper all these declarations: … ‘I am Anne of Green Gables’ … and I stuck them all over the house. … I was determined to get this part.”

The actress felt some pressure after she was cast as the iconic character, too. “I have to do the best I can do and make it real for me,” she said. “I may not be the Anne of Green Gables for some people and I may be for others, so I just have to be the Anne for this production.” Follows, of course, would go on to be the image of Anne for young girls of a certain generation. 

6. SOME FILMING TOOK PLACE BEFORE FOLLOWS WAS EVEN CAST.

Those wide shots of Anne in the fall and winter? That’s not Follows; that’s a double. Follows hadn’t yet been cast when the scenes were filmed. Similarly, some shots of Matthew were doubles because Richard Farnsworth was in negotiations for the role but hadn’t yet signed on (you can see Farnsworth’s double in the scene where Matthew and the doctor arrive at the Barry’s house when Diana’s sister, Minnie May, has croup).

“I always think, ‘What would have happened if we hadn’t gotten Richard Farnsworth to do the film?’” Sullivan said in DVD commentary. “We never would have been able to use these sequences. It was a bit of gamble trying to cast and shoot with a double before we’d finalized the arrangements with him to play in the film.” Doubles were also used for Farnsworth and Colleen Dewhurst (who played Marilla Cuthbert) in certain scenes when the actors couldn’t make shooting days; their close-ups and reaction shots were filmed later.

7. COLLEEN DEWHURST WAS EAGER TO PLAY MARILLA.

“It was really the first book I ever remembered my mother reading to me,” she said. “Of course, that was after the bunny rabbit books and everything.” Dewhurst took the part even though her agent advised her against it.

8. JONATHAN CROMBIE ALMOST WASN’T CAST AS GILBERT.

Sullivan told the CBC in 1986 that he was close to casting another boy as Gilbert when casting director Diane Polley saw Crombie perform in a high school production of The Wizard of Oz. He remembered in DVD commentary that Polley “walked into my office one day with a photograph of him and said ‘This is Gilbert.’ But it was a photograph of him in front of some ride at Disneyland. And I said, ‘He looks perfect,’ and she said, ‘Cast him, now.’”

So Crombie came in and read for the part. “I thought, I’ll go down, give it a shot, see what it’s like,” he told the CBC. “[I] walked in with my little photo ... and everybody was there with their sheets of resumes, and their 8x10 glossies. I gave it a shot, and didn’t think much of it, and I found out a few days later that I got it. I was shaking on the phone when she told me.”

It was his first on-screen role. “I’d never been in front of a camera before,” he said. “It was straight from high school plays to this. As far as expectations, I really didn’t have many. I was just going to take it as it came.”

9. VERY LITTLE FILMING TOOK PLACE ON PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND.

Montgomery's book is set on the island, but it was too expensive to do much filming there. Instead, most of the filming for Anne took place around Southern Ontario in locations that Sullivan felt looked the most like Prince Edward Island, and the production dyed the roads red to mimic PEI’s scarlet soil.

Among the locations used were Westfield Heritage Village in Hamilton, Ontario, which stood in for Avonlea; Doon Heritage Village in Kitchener, Ontario, where scenes at Rachel Lynde’s house were filmed; and Simcoe County Museum in Barrie, Ontario, where a schoolhouse from 1900 served as Avonlea’s schoolhouse. Anne walked the ridgepole of a roof of a building in the Pickering Museum Village. Buildings at the University of Toronto doubled as Queens College, and the Spadina Museum in Toronto served as the home of Diana’s wealthy Aunt Josephine.

10. GREEN GABLES WAS ACTUALLY TWO BUILDINGS.

One house was cast as the front of Green Gables, and another was used for the back. According to Sullivan Entertainment’s website, the building that served as the front of Green Gables was used in all the Anne movies and was “located just off an extremely busy road northeast of Toronto, Ontario. The location of the house presented some logistical challenges because of the traffic noise and limited filming angles.” It was also a working farm; before filming, all modern equipment had to be removed. The house was painted and the picket fence added for the films. The interior of Green Gables was built on a soundstage.

11. SOME SCENES WERE SHOT SPECIFICALLY FOR THE GERMAN VERSION.

Anne of Green Gables ended up being a co-production between Canada and Germany, so German actors were cast in two roles—Christiane Krüger, who plays the reverend’s wife, Mrs. Allan, and Joachim Hansen, who plays John Sadler—and nearly nine minutes of extra scenes featuring them were shot specifically for the German broadcast. “A whole other version of the film was taken to Germany and dubbed in German,” Sullivan said in DVD commentary, “and it was very successful there.”

12. FOLLOWS SOMETIMES HAD TO PLAY 12- AND 16-YEARS-OLD ON THE SAME DAY.

“It isn’t a huge age difference ... but it is in terms of an attitude—it’s a little girl to 16 and a half, which in those days was already a young lady,” Follows said. “I remember a couple days where we’d have five different age changes. I’d go from 12 to 14 to 16 back to 12, and they were all out of sequence, and at first, it was difficult.” Wardrobe and hair and makeup helped her get into character. “The funny thing was that I’d find even when my hair would go into the braids and I’d put the orphan dress and the shoes and all of a sudden I just felt younger, and I’d walk differently,” she said.

13. SULLIVAN ENLISTED A FAMILY MEMBER TO STAR.

Diana’s little sister, Minnie May, was played by Sullivan’s niece, Morgan Chapman, who in one scene had to convincingly play a child with croup. Sullivan had no idea how she’d do. “Poor Morgan was about four at the time, and we brought her onto this hot set in the middle of the summer. She had no idea what making a movie was about, and when she came into it, she totally freaked out,” Sullivan recalled in DVD commentary. “She became a screaming child, and we had to calm her down and get her into the bed, so she looks sick because she’s absolutely sobbing ... When were first premiered the film, people said ‘Who played Minnie May? She was absolutely brilliant.’” (Morgan also makes an appearance in the sequel alongside her brother, Fraser, who played Tommy Bell; Sullivan’s newborn nephew Hudson played Diana’s baby.)

Morgan wasn’t the only family member of the team to make an appearance in the film: The orphanage director, Mrs. Cadbury, was played by Follows’s mother, and the piano player in the opera singer scene was played by the brother of Patricia Hamilton, a.k.a. Rachel Lynde.

14. DEWHURST SOMETIMES HAD TROUBLE REMEMBERING HER LINES.

And when she did, she’d substitute words for what she couldn’t remember. Follows recalled one long day where the cast was filming the scene where Miss Stacy (Marilyn Lightstone) comes to dinner. “It was Marilyn’s close-up and Colleen had this very long speech and, like all of us do, she’d muddle it up every now and then,” Follows said. “But she’d put in her own words for things, like boofers and whoziggies and whachumacallits ... I couldn’t stop laughing. She had her line—something about ‘your feather-brained ways and you’re more interested in the sound of your own tongue.’ And she couldn’t remember it, so she’d say things like ‘Your absent-minded opinions and the noise of your own mouth!’”

That wasn't an isolated occurrence, either. “There were times when we would have to stop rolling on set because we were all about to crack up, just because of Colleen’s mischievous ways,” Sullivan said in DVD commentary. “She’d completely forget her lines from scene to scene and she would just start talking about boomfers and puffers and we’d have to cut and go to another take.”

15. GETTING THE RIGHT SHADE OF GREEN ON ANNE’S RED HAIR WAS DIFFICULT.

“You can see it almost looks gray,” Sullivan said in DVD commentary. “We had to tweak it afterwards when we were making the film to enhance the green so that it would look distinctive.”

16. THERE WAS A LOT OF LAUGHTER ON SET.

“I remember we had shot the spelling competition where Anne wins over Gilbert by spelling chrysanthemum correctly,” Follows wrote for Entertainment Weekly in a eulogy for Crombie, who died in April of this year. “Jonathan decided Gilbert was the worst speller in the world and he could not spell anything. So he’d do this running joke where he would be smiling with a handful of very wilty flowers in his hand and trying to spell what they were. And I’d be laughing hysterically.”

She and Dewhurst also had a tough time keeping it together. “I’d find that when we were on the set, I’d share little looks with her … Kevin would say, ‘Tremble with excitement,’ and Colleen and I would just find that kind of amusing and we’d start laughing,” she remembered. “That was the neat thing about her. We’d find a lot of things humorous and have a good laugh about it.”

17. DEWHURST GAVE CROMBIE SOME VALUABLE ADVICE.

“On my very first day of filming the first Anne, I did the bridge scene with Colleen Dewhurst,” Crombie recalled in a fan Q&A. “I remember on our drive back she told me how important it was for actors (especially doing an historical piece) to learn all the details of the character’s place and time—to make it as familiar and authentic as possible. It always stuck with me, and I am a true believer in preparation—having a solid understanding of all the aspects that inform that character’s life. I enjoy the investigation work, and it also gives me a greater sense of confidence for when the filming (or rehearsals) begin.”

18. THERE WAS A TRICK TO THOSE PUFFED SLEEVES.

“We had filled the dress with some kind of stuffing so that the puffed sleeves would stand up,” Sullivan said in DVD commentary. “Unfortunately, in later scenes, she kept showing up and the stuffing had been forgotten, so in my mind, the dress looks its most spectacular [in its first scene].”

“I remember us making and puffing those sleeves,” Follows told Vulture. “We did it ourselves. We stuck a lot of twill into those puffs. It was like, ‘Let’s make those puffs the puffiest!’ And they really were.”

19. DEWHURST HATED THE PERIOD UNDERGARMENTS.

Especially the corsets. “She wore [the undergarments] for a few days,” Sullivan said in DVD commentary, “and said ‘That’s it.’” Follows wasn’t a fan either. According to Sullivan, after production wrapped on Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel, which was shot in 1986, “Megan was so sick of wearing Victorian corsets that she actually burned hers in a bonfire at the end of the film.”

20. “THE LADY OF SHALOTT” SCENE REQUIRED SOME TRICKERY.

The scene was filmed in two locations: Close-ups were shot in a swamp outside of Toronto, and the wide shots were done in a pond. Neither body of water had a current. “It was a complicated scene because we needed to have the boat push off and glide down the river on its own, and there was absolutely no current,” Sullivan said in DVD commentary. “So the prop people had to strip down and get into mucky, mucky swamp, full of leeches and everything else, [and go] under the water to pull the boat down the stream. They all had a tremendous amount of fun trying to make this boat move.”

To get the shots of the boat sinking, the production first filmed the scenes of the boat filling up at the edge of the shore, then took it back to the middle of the pond so Follows could sit up. Then, someone was under the boat, making it sink with perfect timing so Follows could grab the pier. The whole sequence had to be shot in sections and then cut together.

21. ONE SCENE MADE FOLLOWS PARTICULARLY NERVOUS.

It was the sequence where Anne recites “The Highwayman” at the White Sands Hotel. “She was as nervous as Anne was getting up on stage to do it,” Sullivan said in DVD commentary. “It was the first time Megan attempted anything like that.”

The Windermere House, which served as the location for the White Sands Hotel, was destroyed in a fire in early 1996 during filming of The Long Kiss Goodnight.

22. THE SCENE BETWEEN ANNE AND MARILLA AFTER MATTHEW’S DEATH WASN’T IN THE SCRIPT.

Dewhurst convinced Sullivan to add in the scene. Sullivan wrote in the foreword to the centennial edition of the novel that Dewhurst “became very concerned during filming that in the script, once Marilla lost Matthew, something in her relationship with Anne was lost. She felt that something was not properly articulated in the shooting script.” Dewhurst pointed out a few lines toward the end of the novel, when Marilla goes to Anne after Matthew’s funeral and says, “It’s never been easy for me to say things out of my heart, but at times like this it’s easier. I love you as dear as if you were my own flesh and blood and you’ve been my joy and comfort ever since you came to Green Gables.”

“It’s a fleeting moment, a mere few lines, but as Colleen pointed out, it is an important revelation between the stern spinster and the orphan she has adopted,” Sullivan wrote. “Colleen pressed me to turn the moment into a scene and although there was little time left in our schedule by that point, I quickly wrote a short scene one morning on set.”

The resulting scene took just 45 minutes to shoot, and Sullivan thought that in it, Dewhurst and Follows gave their best performances of the entire film. They shot it in just three takes, “and by the time we had finished, the crew was overwrought that they all had to leave, and so we broke for lunch,” Sullivan said in DVD commentary. “[They] managed to move a crew, which is very, very difficult.”

23. THE ENDING WAS RESHOT.

The first version of the finale was shot rather quickly, and Sullivan wasn’t happy with the light, so at the end of the production, they went back and shot it again. The original finale is a lot more jokey—when Gilbert calls her “Carrots,” Anne says, “Argh, Carrots! Oh, you!” and smacks him—than the romantic second take that ended up in the final film.

24. IT WON A LOT OF AWARDS.

The miniseries won an Emmy and 10 Gemini Awards, and Kevin Sullivan received a Peabody Award.

25. SULLIVAN PRODUCED TWO SEQUELS, A TV SPIN-OFF, AN ANIMATED SERIES, AND A PREQUEL.

Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel (or Anne of Avonlea, as it was called in the States) premiered in 1987. Road to Avonlea, the Anne spin-off featuring characters like Marilla and Rachel, ran from 1990 to 1996. Sullivan also produced an animated version of the series in nine volumes and a third Anne movie starring Follows and Crombie, Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story, which was released in 2000. Finally, in 2008, Sullivan released Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning, which was both a prequel and a sequel to the Anne films and starred Shirley MacLaine and Barbara Hershey.

A new Anne movie is coming next year—but it won’t be a Sullivan production. Sullivan and Montgomery’s heirs aren’t exactly on good terms, but the author’s granddaughter is serving as executive producer on the new Anne film, which stars Martin Sheen as Matthew.

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literature
7 Lost and Rediscovered Literary Works by Famous Authors
F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A number of literary works by famous authors that were once thought lost have recently been rediscovered. Some were found in private collections, others within vast archives, and one was even uncovered in an attic. A few of these works have delighted readers and scholars alike, while others may have gone unpublished for a reason—yet all offer fresh insight into the development of the writers who wrote them.

1. “TEMPERATURE” // F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

In July 2015 Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand magazine, was searching through the rare book archive at Princeton University when he uncovered a previously unpublished short story by Princeton alum F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gulli makes something of a habit of searching for lost and unpublished works by famous authors, and in the past has uncovered a story by John Steinbeck, which was also published for the first time in The Strand. Fitzgerald's 8000-word short story, entitled “Temperature” and written in 1939, features a hard-drinking writer with a heart problem. In a sad echo of real life, just a year after he wrote it Fitzgerald himself died of a heart attack.

2. WHAT PET SHALL I GET? // DR. SEUSS

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) seated at a desk covered with his books
Library of Congress, Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 2013, the widow of Ted Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) rediscovered a pile of manuscripts and sketches that she had set aside shortly after her husband's death in 1991. The papers contained the words and illustrations for What Pet Shall I Get?, which was published by Random House in July 2015. It is thought the book was likely written between 1958 and 1962, since it features the same brother-and-sister characters found in Seuss’s 1960 bestseller One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.

3. “SHERLOCK HOLMES: DISCOVERING THE BORDER BURGHS AND, BY DEDUCTION, THE BRIG BAZAAR” // ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE

Portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sitting at a table in his garden, Bignell Wood, New Forest, 1927
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A Sherlock Holmes short story supposedly written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was uncovered in the attic of historian Walter Elliot in 2015. The strange little story was written by Conan Doyle to be included in a collection of stories entitled The Book o' the Brig, which aimed to raise funds to rebuild a bridge across Ettrick Water, near Selkirk in Scotland, which had been destroyed during floods in 1902.

No sooner had the story been rediscovered, however, than some were expressing doubts about whether it had been written by Conan Doyle himself, especially since the flowery language doesn't seem in keeping with the renowned author's pared-down style. The full text of the story can be read (and puzzled over) here.

4. "THE FIELD OF HONOR" // EDITH WHARTON

Photo of author Edith Wharton, wearing hat with a feather, coat with fur trim, and a fur muff
Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Alice Kelly, a researcher from Oxford University, was studying Edith Wharton’s papers in the Beinecke Library at Yale University in November 2015 when she discovered a previously unpublished short story. The unfinished nine-page story was stuck to the back of another manuscript, and is entitled "The Field of Honor." It centers on the First World War and is critical of the women who only superficially helped with the war effort, perhaps explaining why it was not published at such a sensitive time.

5. "POETICAL ESSAY ON THE EXISTING STATE OF THINGS" // PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

Crayon drawing of poet Percy Shelley circa 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Percy Bysshe Shelley was in his first year of university at Oxford in 1810/11, he wrote and published a poem critical of the Napoleonic wars under the pseudonym “a gentlemen of the University of Oxford.” The 172-line poem was printed in a 20-page pamphlet entitled “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things” and was not attributed to Shelley until 50 years after his death. All copies were thought lost until 2006, when one was found amidst a mysterious private collection and offered for auction. Only scholars had access to the poem until 2015, when it was purchased by the Bodleian Library in Oxford to add to their world-famous collection of Shelley works and papers. The poem became the library’s 12 millionth book to be acquired and is now available online for all to read.

6. EARLY STORIES // TRUMAN CAPOTE

A black-and-white photo of a smiling Truman Capote
Evening Standard/Getty Images

A Swiss publisher poring over Truman Capote’s papers at the New York Public Library several years ago rediscovered a variety of short stories and poems the author had written before the age of 20. While four of the stories had been published in Capote’s school literary magazine, The Green Witch, the majority of the pile was brand-new to the reading public. In October 2015, Penguin books released the stories as The Early Stories of Truman Capote.

7. THE TURNIP PRINCESS

While looking through the archives of the city of Regensberg, Germany, researcher Erika Eichenseer uncovered 30 boxes containing more than 500 German fairy tales, which had lain unnoticed for 150 years. The stories had been collected by historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, who traveled around the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz recording folktales, myths, and legends in order to preserve them. He published the results of his research in three volumes between 1857 and 1859, but his matter-of-fact accounts of the stories were somewhat overshadowed by the more artful stories of his contemporaries the Brothers Grimm, and his book fell into obscurity. The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales contains 72 of the lost tales and was published by Penguin in February 2015.

A previous version of this story ran in 2015.

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History
The Time the Oxford English Dictionary Forgot a Word
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

When the complete edition of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary debuted in 1928, it was lauded as a comprehensive collection of the English language, a glossary so vast—and so thorough—that no other reference book could ever exceed its detail or depth. In total, the project took seven decades to catalogue everything from A to Z, defining a total of 414,825 words. But in the eyes of its editor James Murray, the very first volume of the dictionary was something of an embarrassment: It was missing a word.

Looking back, it’s impressive that more words were not lost. Assembling the OED was a nightmare. Before the first volume—an installment consisting of words beginning with the letters A and B—was published in 1888, multiple editors had taken (and abandoned) the helm, and each regime change created new opportunities for mayhem. When James Murray took command in 1879, the Oxford English Dictionary could best be defined by the word disarray.

The irony of making this massive reference book was that it required millions upon millions of tiny, tiny pieces of paper. Every day, volunteers mailed in thousands of small strips of paper called “quotation slips.” On these slips, volunteers would copy a single sentence from a book, in hopes that this sentence could help illuminate a particular word’s meaning. (For example, the previous sentence might be a good example of the word illuminate. Volunteers would copy that sentence and mail it to Oxford’s editors, who would review it and compare the slip to others to highlight the word illuminate.)

The process helped Oxford’s editors study all of the shades of meaning expressed by a single word, but it was also tedious and messy. With thousands of slips pouring into the OED’s offices every day, things could often go wrong.

And they did.

Some papers were stuffed haphazardly into boxes or bags, where they gathered cobwebs and were forgotten. Words beginning with Pa went missing for 12 years, only to be recovered in County Cavan, Ireland, where somebody was using the papers as kindling. Slips for the letter G were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. In 1879, the entire letter H turned up in Italy. At one point, Murray opened a bag only to find a family of live mice chewing on the paperwork.

When Murray took over, he tried to right the ship. To better organize the project, he built a small building of corrugated iron called the “Scriptorium.” It resembled a sunken tool shed, but it was here—with the help of 1029 built-in pigeonholes—that Murray and his subeditors arranged, sorted, and filed more than a thousand incoming slips every day. Millions of quotations would pass through the Scriptorium, and hundreds of thousands of words would be neatly organized by Murray’s trusty team.

One word, however, slipped through the cracks.

Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Media Specialist, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bondmaid is not the kind of word people drop during conversation anymore, and that’s for the best: It means “a slave girl.” The word was most popular in the 16th century. Murray’s file for bondmaid, however, reached back even further: It included quotations as old as William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible.

But then bondmaid went missing. “Its slips had fallen down behind some books, and the editors had never noticed that it was gone,” writes Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything. When the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1888, bondmaid wasn’t there. (That volume of the OED does miss other words, but those exclusions were deliberate matters of editorial policy—bondmaid is the only word that the editors are known to have physically lost.)

When the slips were later rediscovered in the Scriptorium, Murray reportedly turned red with embarrassment. By 1901, some 14 years after the exclusion, he was still reeling over the mistake in a draft of a letter addressed to an anonymous contributor: “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission. The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable, and with our minute organization one would have said absolutely impossible; I hope also absolutely unparalleled.”

All was not lost for the lost word, however. In 1933, bondmaid made its Oxford dictionary debut. It had taken nearly five decades to make the correction.

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