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.”
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.