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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.

* * *

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.

Although Murray was so impressed by Minor that he would occasionally ask him to review his complete notes for a given word, Minor never did any defining for the OED. But that’s exactly what he did for the 1864 Webster’s, for which he earned not renown but rebuke.

On April 9, 1861, three days before the start of the Civil War, Minor signed his contract with the G.C. Merriam Company. He was to be paid $500 to “prepare the articles…in the following departments…Zoology, Natural History, Geology, Mineralogy, Botany, Chemistry, Anatomy, Surgery of all sorts.” This position had come to Minor by default: he was a last-minute substitute for James Dana, who had been forced to reduce his workload because of a flare-up of his recurring depression. While Anthony Burgess was referring to Murray’s obsession with lexicography when he noted that “the study of language may beget madness,” his famous observation isn’t limited to Brits; mental instability would also plague numerous nineteenth-century American lexicographers, including Webster and his sole assistant on the 1828 dictionary, James Gates Percival, as well as Webster’s successor as editor, his son-in-law Chauncey Goodrich.

In a “confidential” letter dated February 20, 1862, to William Wheeler, another Yale faculty member and dictionary editor, the publishers, George and Charles Merriam, explained Minor’s precise role: “Prof. Dana had charge of the department of Natural Science—Botany, Zoology, etc. His health failed after a partial completion of the work, and a young man, a Mr. Minor, now carries it on under Dr. Dana’s supervision.” The Merriams also noted that Minor was responsible for selecting the illustrations that would accompany his definitions. In his editor’s preface to the 1864 edition, Noah Porter gave the official version of this arrangement. After stating that Dana has scrutinized the revisions in “Geology, Natural History, etc.,” Porter mentioned that at Dana’s suggestion, “William C. Minor, M.D., was employed to render assistance in these departments, and he has labored with great ability and zeal in connection with Professor Dana, who has, in every instance, carefully reviewed and expressly sanctioned his work.”

But Minor’s talent was no match for his enthusiasm, according to Samuel Stehman Haldeman, an esteemed polymath at Delaware College, who would later become one of the first presidents of the American Philological Association. The author of dozens of influential papers on natural history—including a nine-part treatise on mollusks—who had just completed a landmark work on affixes, Haldeman repeatedly railed against the “incompetency of Dr. Minor” in a series of letters written to the Merriams soon after the dictionary’s publication. While acknowledging that the book as a whole was “excellent,” the eminent philologist was horrified by Minor’s rendering of numerous scientific terms. Well aware of how Dana’s illness had limited his participation (and convinced that he could spot the Yale professor’s work when he saw it), Haldeman concluded in a September 6, 1865, letter: “Excepting Professor Dana’s part,” the natural history “is the weakest part of the book.”

Haldeman was temperamental—to recover from “severe mental strain,” he had recently taken a yearlong hiatus to compose a book on chess—but his criticism of Minor was not an eruption of vitriol. It was the result of a laser-sharp scrutiny of the text. In his letter to the Merriams, he gave several examples of errors attributable to Minor’s sloppiness. He was annoyed that the figures—which, as spelled out by that internal memo from the publishers, fell under Minor’s jurisdiction—were “often defective and inverted.” As Haldeman noted, the figure of “Lucanus”—a type of beetle—appeared three times in the book, and once upside down. Likewise, under the definition of “Nudibranchiate”—an order of mollusk—Minor included two figures next to the caption “Doris solea,” but that description applied only to the one on the left. Even more significant was Minor’s imprecision. Haldeman was shocked by the definition of “Argonauta” as “a mollusk or insect having eight feet or legs.” An expert in conchology, he took it as a personal affront that Minor was ignoring the basics: “But an insect cannot be a mollusk, and insects have six legs, spiders have eight.” Minor was also guilty of mangling the key terms of natural history. Under the definition of “bear,” a “white bear” was described as belonging to the genus “Ursus,” but under “white bear,” the genus was identified as “Thalarctos.” And “white bear” was called in the first instance “a species” and in the second instance “a variety.”

Haldeman would eventually devote five pages of his thirty-six-page article, “American Dictionaries,” published in 1869 in the Southern Review, to a complete catalog of Minor’s errors. Summing up his chief criticism, Haldeman wrote, “A dictionary should at least be consistent with itself.” Haldeman considered Minor such a nonentity that he didn’t bother to mention him by name. He thought highly of Dana, though, and sought to protect his reputation from Porter’s misleading preface: “It is known that Professor Dana was so ill that he could not work for a number of years, and the editor has done wrong in putting him as prominently forward as he has done, when the dictionary shows grave errors in departments with which this distinguished naturalist is perfectly familiar.” As an American lexicographer, W.C. Minor was an utter failure.

* * *

However, Haldeman insisted that with the lone exception of Minor’s sections, the 1864 Webster’s passed muster. “The portions of the new Webster,” he concluded in his review, “devoted to mathematics, mechanics, engineering, and some other departments are very well edited, and the etymology…is of so high a character as to be the chief feature of the book.” The book’s unequivocal success can be traced back to the untiring efforts of editor Noah Porter to launch this major revision, which dates back to 1857.

The year is widely considered the annus mirabilis of the modern English dictionary, but that’s less because of Porter’s efforts than those of Richard Trench, Herbert Coleridge and Frederick Furnivall, core members of London’s Philological Society. That June, dissatisfied with the solo performances by Webster, Samuel Johnson and Charles Richardson, author of the eccentric New Dictionary of the English Language—which relied on quotations to determine meaning—Trench, Coleridge and Furnivall decided to pool their talents to write a supplement to existing dictionaries. Trench’s paper “On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries,” presented that November, was the group’s manifesto. Two key problems with the reigning authorities, Trench argued, were the absence of authoritative etymologies and lack of comprehensiveness: a dictionary should be a true “inventory of the language.” Because previous lexicographers, he maintained, did not systematically review the whole body of English literature, they failed to include many important uses of words, especially the earliest examples. Although Trench considered the latest edition of Webster’s, as revised by Chauncey Goodrich, an improvement over the latest edition of Johnson’s, as revised by Henry John Todd, both were beyond repair: “Even if Webster’s Dictionary were in other respects a better book, the almost total absence of illustrative quotations would deprive it of all value in my eyes.” Trench and his colleagues settled on a more ambitious course of action: they would write their own book—provisionally titled A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles—from scratch.

But the new dictionary came smack up against many obstacles. By 1861 Trench had retreated into clerical life and Coleridge had died; it was only after Murray came on board in the late 1870s that the defining got under way. The first volume, running from “A” to “Ant,” wasn’t published until 1884. In contrast, Porter’s project proceeded at breakneck speed, despite the outbreak of the Civil War.

In an unpublished letter to G. & C. Merriam written in June 1857, the perspicacious Porter, who knew little of the goings-on in England, speculated, “It is by no means impossible, that there are now at work in…England & America, scholars & editors who may suddenly bring out a Dictionary which shall be universally preferred to Webster.” The “serious defects in Webster,” which Porter aimed to fix, were essentially the same as the “deficiencies” noted by Trench. Besides revamping the etymology, the major flaw in Noah Webster’s oeuvre (America’s ur-lexicographer had been addicted to wild guesswork), Porter also recommended a systematic arrangement of the definitions: “the progressive changes which the leading meaning has undergone should be given in order, + the growth of each word should be indicated by the historical exhibition of its several significations.”

After the publication of the 1859 edition, the Merriams had asked the editor, Chauncey Goodrich, to spearhead the mammoth revision. But when Goodrich died unexpectedly in 1860, they turned to an initially reluctant Porter, who had been a contributor to the dictionary since his appointment to the Yale faculty a decade earlier. Unlike James Murray, who was familiar with nearly thirty languages, including Moeso-Gothic and Achaemenian Cuneiform, Porter was no polyglot but a common-sense philosopher. A practical New Englander who considered lexicography “foreign to his special studies,” he would emerge less as Webster’s editor in chief than as its CEO. Soon after taking the top job, he explained his approach to the Merriams: “I have desired that there should be that subdivision of labor which contributes to the best and most rapid execution of the work.” But his ability to organize people rather than words was precisely what was needed to inaugurate the new age of dictionary-making.

An expert delegator, Porter reached out to Carl August Friedrich Mahn, whom he had met several years earlier during his sabbatical in Germany, to redo all the etymologies. Porter had initially hoped to hire someone living in the United States, but his protégé, Maximilian Sobieski, proved too unstable, even for the lexicography business. A Polish émigré and a direct descendant of his country’s seventeenth-century king, Jan III, Sobieski couldn’t shake his addiction to brandy and opium. Porter handed off the line-editing to two Yale colleagues: William Whitney, a brilliant polyglot who would later edit the multivolume Century Dictionary and Cyclopaedia, and Daniel Gilman, then the college’s librarian and later the first president of Johns Hopkins University. They would recast the definitions, putting the entries in historical order.

* * *

Eager to rid Webster’s of all its defects, Porter also made a systematic attempt to gather illustrative quotations. He turned to George Perkins Marsh, the Vermont linguist Coleridge had already enlisted to serve as his “Secretary in America”—responsible for organizing the new British dictionary’s American volunteers. Coleridge had recruited 147 quotation seekers from around the world by 1860, but many soon dropped out; the program would falter for a couple of decades (before eventually encompassing thousands of readers). In contrast, Porter’s operation was running smoothly by the end of 1861. For the consulting fee paid by Porter, Marsh prepared a memo in which he explained the need for immersion in the whole body of English literature to ground the meaning of individual words. “But as to the citations,” Porter wrote to the Merriams in early 1861, “you know what George Marsh thinks of them. We all know that if at a moderate expense we can get 40,000 or 50,000 new ones—authors new and old—it will give a prestige to the dictionary.” Porter was able to meet this modest goal by hiring—at Marsh’s suggestion—another Vermonter, Henry Swan Dana, to comb through the major works of the Elizabethan age. For the other new quotations, Porter was, as he noted in the preface, “indebted to the zeal…of many devoted ‘readers’ for the Dictionary, not a few of the most faithful and judicious of whom were ladies.”

The 1864 Webster’s was in many respects the first draft of the OED. With the template for the modern dictionary in place, Murray and his team could focus on expanding the text rather than rethinking the paradigm. As Murray famously noted in his preface, he would include all words “now in use, or known to have been in use since the middle of the twelfth century.” Throughout his decades in the Scriptorium—as he dubbed his workstation—Murray kept close tabs on the “Webster ratio,” the size difference between the two books. Murray instructed his editors to include no more than six times as many pages for each letter as Webster’s; the entire dictionary would eventually encompass about ten times as many. The complete dictionary—finished in 1928, more than a decade after Murray’s death—would contain 414,825 “head” words defined by 1,827,306 illustrative quotations over the course of 15,490 pages.

But did much bigger mean much better? In 1866 Marsh, who would later subedit the H volume for Murray from Rome during his stint as the US Ambassador to Italy, speculated that it would be hard to improve on the 1864 Webster’s. In his “Notes on the New Edition of Webster’s Dictionary,” published in The Nation that August, Marsh, who died in 1882, two years before the OED’s first fascicle rolled off the press, remarked, “its vocabulary is more copious, its etymologies more sound and satisfactory and its definitions more accurate than those of any other English dictionary known to me.” Added the man who had a foot in both camps: “the superiority [of the New English Dictionary] will lie less in superior exactness of description than in fullness of vocabulary.”

Marsh’s prediction sounds remarkably prescient—with one minor exception. The British dictionary would clean up the mess that Yale’s med student had wrought. Take “Tick,” which Webster’s had defined as “a species of Acarus,” even though “Acarus” had already been defined as “A genus of small spiders, embracing the mites and ticks.” The OED would avoid this inconsistency—one of the sources of Haldeman’s apoplexy—by describing “Acarus” as “A genus of minute Arachnida or spider-like animals, embracing the cheese-mites and its congeners; a mite.”

The OED did, as Winchester argues, offer W.C. Minor a chance at “redemption.” But this “madman” had not one but two skeletons in his closet—in addition to the murder of Merrett, he had been guilty of butchering the English language. For this reason, Minor’s eventual triumph is all the more inspiring.

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