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The Merriams and the Madman

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at the madman of Merriam.

Many people are familiar with the history of Dr. Minor, the titular madman of Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman. This magnificent work has been read by an uncountable number; others perhaps know the tale through reading Elizabeth Knowles’ excellent account of it in the Dictionary Society of North America’s annual publication of 1990. Still others, who have read neither of these, have a vague knowledge of his story, enough so that when Minor’s name comes up they can nod to themselves and recollect that he had something to do with the OED.

William Chester Minor was one of the great contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary, although he did his contributing from a two room suite in the Broadmoor Insane Asylum, in England. For several decades, from the book-lined confines of this establishment, Minor provided thousands and thousands of citations for the dictionary as a volunteer reader. However, this was not his first lexicographic work.

In the early 1860s, before he lost his sanity and his liberty, Minor worked for the Merriam-Webster company. In what I feel is a shocking failure to capitalize on some serious brand-recognition possibilities Merriam-Webster has not chosen to make note of this bit of lexicographic trivia (although Minor’s name was listed in their 1864 dictionary). There is not much printed information available on his history with this company, and what little I’ve found is located in the Merriam-Webster archives at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

The first mention of Minor is in a letter from C. S. Lyman to George and Charles Merriam, dated January 8th, 1861, in which Minor is mentioned as a possible choice for the position of revising the Natural History section of the dictionary. Minor was not the first choice, but Lyman did recommend him enthusiastically, calling him “a naturalist of great promise”, and one who had the added benefit of being inexpensive (“would do the work well – with less expense probably…”).

Minor’s name comes up occasionally in further letters that indicate that he was working on the dictionary, but which do not specify what his duties were, until a contract dated April 9th, 1861, stating that he was to be paid $500 for performing work on the dictionary in the areas of zoology, natural history, geology, mineralogy, botany, chemistry, anatomy, and surgery.

And sure enough, in the company ledgers for this time period there is an entry for William Minor, showing that between May 29th, 1861 and April 6th, 1864 he was paid slightly over $500. I have found no mention of why he left the employ of Merriam-Webster, or any indication of how they felt about his work.

I think Merriam-Webster is missing out on a golden opportunity for publicity. The fact that a self-castrating mentally ill murderer helped prepare the OED certainly did not hurt the sales of that dictionary. Merriam-Webster could promote this aspect of its history tastefully, perhaps by using a series of slogans that could either run as part of an ad campaign or which could be emblazoned on the title page of the dictionary. Some possibilities:
“Merriam-Webster – we had a madman before it was cool”
“For the finest in philology and peotomy – get Webster”
“We found Dr. Minor before he lost his mind”

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