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A Minor Exception: On W.C. Minor and Noah Webster | The Nation

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A Minor Exception: On W.C. Minor and Noah Webster

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In the late 1880s, about ten years into his tenure as editor of The Oxford English Dictionary, James Augustus Henry Murray made a startling discovery. His most trusted volunteer reader, Dr. William Chester Minor, who had supplied tens of thousands of illustrative quotations, was not the man Murray thought he was. The Scottish philologist had long assumed that Minor was a neurologist practicing at Broadmoor Asylum, which was the return address noted on his numerous packages. While Minor was, in fact, a physician, he was also a mental patient locked away at Broadmoor for a heinous crime. As Simon Winchester writes in The Meaning of Everything (2003), a history of the OED, “No one at the Dictionary, least of all James Murray, had hitherto suspected that their most assiduous contributor was a madman, a murderer, and an American.”

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This triple surprise served as the narrative hook of Winchester’s first book on the OED, The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998), which was renamed The Professor and the Madman for the US market, where it became a mega-seller. But Minor’s history holds a fourth surprise. Though Winchester assumes Minor had some prior “knowledge of dictionaries” based on his “love of books,” this “madman” was not an amateur lexicographer when he started contributing to the OED. In 1861, two decades before becoming Murray’s right-hand man, Minor, then a first-year medical student at Yale, signed a contract to write definitions for a new edition of Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. Moreover, unbeknownst to Winchester and Murray, Minor’s literary debut—the young doctor’s name made it into the 1864 edition of Webster’s—received catcalls from critics, who noted scores of errors.

This untold chapter of Minor’s story also points to a more significant lacuna. To date, the Brits have commandeered the history of English lexicography, which, besides Winchester’s two books, includes such volumes as K.M. Elisabeth Murray’s biography of her grandfather, Caught in the Web of Words (1977), Jonathon Green’s comprehensive survey Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-Makers and the Dictionaries They Made (1996) and Lynda Mugglestone’s Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary (2005). An understandable pride in England’s achievements—particularly the OED, a national treasure—has meant that American contributions often get short shrift. The Brits rarely have a kind word to say about Webster (1758–1843)—whose American Dictionary appeared in 1828—or any of the subsequent dictionaries that bear his name. Webster was a legendary grump, but he deserves better than Winchester’s quick characterization as “‘the short, pale, smug and boastful’ schoolmaster from New Hartford, Connecticut.” (Webster actually hailed from West Hartford and cut a rather dashing figure.) Mugglestone also damns Murray’s predecessor with faint praise, saying that Webster was “regarded as a canonical authority for many in the 19th century (especially in America),” and casts aspersions on the 1864 Webster’s, dubbing it “the token benchmark” for the OED.

Murray was more gracious toward his American precursors. In Evolution of English Lexicography (1900), he characterized the Yale-educated Webster as “a great man, a born definer of words.” He also praised the work of Webster’s successors at the G. & C. Merriam Company, which had bought the rights to the dictionary shortly after its creator’s death. In that same book, Murray describes the “last edition of Webster”—meaning the International (1890), which updated the 1864 revision—as “perhaps the best of one-volume dictionaries.” For Murray, Webster’s was not a token benchmark but the gold standard—better than any other dictionary in America or England—and he designed the OED to supplant it.

Perhaps it’s high time not only to recall that W.C. Minor cut his lexicographic teeth in America but also to give the 1864 Webster’s its due. After all, this American creation, the first English-language dictionary not edited by one person but by a team of lexicographers trained in modern philology, was a remarkable accomplishment. Defining a staggering 114,000 words, and including more than 3,000 illustrations, it was the world’s biggest mass-produced book to date. Despite the gaffes by the future star of the OED, it was widely hailed as a masterpiece. “We are confident,” declared Harper’s, “that no other living language has a Dictionary which so fully and faithfully sets forth its present condition as this last edition of Webster does that of our spoken and written English tongue.” Scientific American called it “an encyclopedia in itself,” and The Atlantic Monthly judged that “briefly, in its general accuracy, completeness, and practical utility,—the work is one which none who read or write can henceforward afford to dispense with.

Overseen by Noah Porter, the Yale philosophy professor who became the college’s president in 1871, the 1864 Webster’s was largely a Yale operation. Nearly half of its faculty—then consisting of about thirty professors—accepted assignments as definers. A century before the “hermeneutical Mafia” based in Yale’s English and Comparative Literature departments grew obsessed with severing the link between the signifier and the signified, the school’s “lexicographic Mafia” was working overtime to establish the meaning of every word in the English language. The legacy of Yale’s constructionists is no less noteworthy than that of its deconstructionists.

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William Chester Minor was descended from a long line of Connecticut aristocrats. In 1833 his father, Eastman Minor—a devout Congregationalist—moved with his new bride, Lucy, to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to set up shop as a missionary. In 1834 William, the couple’s first child, was born; a daughter, also named Lucy, followed two years later. Shortly after his third birthday, William suffered his first major trauma when his mother died of consumption. A few years later, his father remarried another American missionary, Judith Taylor. At 14 Minor sailed back to the United States by himself and settled at the home of his uncle, Alfred, a New Haven store owner.

A little more than a decade later, Minor entered Yale, where, as Winchester notes, he specialized in comparative anatomy and earned a medical degree in February 1863. Upon graduation the young surgeon enlisted with the Union army. His first posting was at the Knight Hospital in New Haven; a year later, he found himself at the front. Transferred to Virginia, he served during the bloody Battle of the Wilderness and branded an Irishman who was attempting to desert the Union army. This incident, many commentators later speculated, may well have been the one that drove him mad.

At the close of the war, Minor rose in the army ranks. Thanks to Yale connections such as James Dana, Yale’s heralded Silliman Professor of Natural History and Geology, who called him “one of the half dozen best [surgeons]…in the country,” Minor became a commissioned captain. (Dana, the author of a pioneering textbook on mineralogy, had been Minor’s boss at Webster’s.) But within a few years, his behavior became increasingly bizarre. While stationed on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor, he began carousing at night with prostitutes. He was transferred to Florida, where he became increasingly paranoid—he would accuse his superior officers of plotting against him—and unpredictable, even violent. By 1868, after Army doctors diagnosed him as “delusional,” “suicidal” and “homicidal,” he volunteered for treatment at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC.

After a stay of eighteen months, Army doctors concluded that Minor suffered from an incurable case of what we would call posttraumatic stress disorder. He was “incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty.” Minor was given an Army pension and released. After returning to New Haven to spend some time with his family, he boarded a ship for Europe, where he hoped to ease his mind. A talented watercolorist, he took his paints (and a letter of introduction from a Yale colleague to the art critic John Ruskin) to London, where he settled. On February 17, 1872, in an outburst of rage, he shot and killed a man named George Merrett. Minor, in the grip of a delusion that people were breaking into his room at night, was convinced that Merrett had been tormenting him. After a brief trial, at which he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, Minor was packed off to Broadmoor, where he would spend the next four decades. (In 1910, with British Home Secretary Winston Churchill pulling some strings, Minor was repatriated. Before his death in 1920, the peripatetic “madman” would do another stint in St. Elizabeths as well as one at an asylum in Hartford.)

Once ensconced in his two-room suite in Broadmoor’s Cell Block Two, the well-heeled American got special treatment. Minor surrounded himself with his favorite things—paints, fine wines and books, both those he had shipped from New Haven and those he ordered at London shops. In the early 1880s he spotted James Murray’s appeal for volunteer readers in one of the packages of books brought to his cell. Shortly after taking the helm of the OED in 1879, Murray had drafted an eight-page press release—later inserted into numerous periodicals—in which he sought to persuade English speakers around the world to mail him illustrative quotations culled from canonical sources. The OED would follow, in part, what we now know of as the “wiki” model of creating and disseminating knowledge. While professional lexicographers would write and edit the dictionary, nobodies from the world over would be entrusted with the painstaking work of finding literary passages that could be inserted into the definitions.

Soon after beginning a correspondence with the “professor”—this word in Winchester’s title was a misnomer, as Murray had no official academic appointment—the former surgeon got down to work. He began combing through his private library of rare books, which included seventeenth-century tomes like The Painting of the Ancients by Francis Junius and The Complete Woman by Jacques du Boscq (as translated from the French by a man identified only as N.N.), looking for interesting uses of words, ordinary and obscure. He compiled enormous word lists. But unlike the other volunteer readers, the meticulous Minor, who relished the chance to distance himself from his harsh quotidian existence, went one step further. He would routinely write to the OED editors, asking them what word they were working on—say, “art” or “buckwheat”—and then supply them directly with apposite quotations. For decades, Minor sent dozens of word slips to Oxford every week. In 1899 Murray summed up the achievement of his favorite volunteer: “The supreme position is…certainly held by Dr. 
W. C. Minor of Broadmoor, who during the past two years has sent in no less than 12,000 quots [sic]…. So enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions during the past 17 or 18 years, that we could easily illustrate the last 4 centuries from his quotations alone.

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