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No. 1358:
William Minor and the OED

Today, a great dictionary and an asylum for the criminally insane. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Oxford English Dictionary (called the OED) is a wonderful, many-volume account of the English language. Most dictionaries simply define words, but the OED is a dictionary of usage. It traces words historically through a sequence of quotations. That way we see how each word came to be used the way it is.

Writer Simon Winchester tells how James Murray began putting the OED together in 1879. Murray's biggest problem was collecting hundreds of thousands of quotations. He needed many for each word. So he advertised for volunteers to submit quotations. That worked. Soon bundles of them were coming in.

One of Murray's most dedicated suppliers was a Dr. William C. Minor. Over the years, Minor supplied tens of thousands of quotations. Murray would invite Minor to come up to Oxford and visit him. Minor always found some excuse not to come. Finally, Murray went to visit Minor. Whether he'd learned Minor's circumstances ahead of time is unclear. It is clear that he was met at the train station and taken to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

William Minor was American -- a Yale graduate who'd served the Union Army as an assistant surgeon. He'd lived with mutilation and death in the Battle of the Wilderness. Then he was ordered to brand an Irish soldier's face with the letter D when the man was caught deserting. That straw broke the camel's back. Minor's conscience cracked. He developed a guilty terror of all Irishmen.

After the war, Minor's wealthy parents sent him to study art in England. One night in a poorer part of London he heard a worker walking behind him and imagined the branded soldier had come to kill him. He panicked, drew a pistol, and shot the man. Minor was found insane and sentenced to life in the Broadmoor Asylum. With his wealth, he could occupy two rooms, engage a manservant, and pursue scholarly interests. He made both apology and reparation to the dead man's widow. They developed a lasting friendship. She brought him antiquarian books and visited him in his cell.

Of course Murray's call for quotations was manna from Heaven for Minor's brilliant, if tormented mind. He sent in bundles of quotations, especially the more obscure and hard-to-find ones. So I went to the OED looking for phrases that might reflect Minor's state of mind. For the word brand they use a quote from Uncle Tom's Cabin about Tom having been "branded in his right hand with the letter H." Did Minor provide that one? More likely is a quote by Lady Montagu used to illustrate the word murder. She wrote:

For tho' in law, to murder be to kill
In equity the murder's in the will.

For years Murray badgered the government to release Minor. In 1910 he finally convinced a young home secretary named Winston Churchill. Minor died at home in Connecticut in 1921, having done a penance that has well served any of us who love language.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Murray, K. M. E., Caught in the Web of Words: James A. H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Winchester, S., The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

Winchester, S., The Strange Case of the Surgeon at Crowthorne. Smithsonian, Sept. 1998, pp. 88-99.

Gussow, M., The Strange Case of the Madman With a Quotation for Every Word, New York Times, Monday, Sept. 7, 1998, pp. B1, B9.

For a story with remarkably similar overtones, see Episode 911.

For more on the Oxford English Dictionary see: