A Minor case: OED contributions from a prison cell
17 February will mark a significant date in the annals of the Oxford English Dictionary. 17 February 1872 was the date on which a Dr. William Chester Minor, American army surgeon, shot and killed George Merrett in the early hours of the morning on a gloomy Lambeth street. Not an auspicious date, granted, but Minor went on to become one of the most important volunteer contributors to the OED.
A man of method
William Minor had worked as a surgeon during the American Civil War and his experiences on the battlefield led to paranoid delusions and an unstable mind. He had come to London to recuperate. Fate dealt its final blow to George Merrett during his daily walk to work at Lambeth’s Red Lion Brewery. Believing someone was trying to enter his rooms, Minor ran on to the street and shot Merrett, who happened to be walking away from him. Minor was found not guilty of the crime on reasons of insanity, but was given a life sentence at what was then called Broadmoor Asylum.
From his cell, Minor began to send in contributions to the OED. He was a well-educated man and an avid reader, with a collection of rare antiquarian books which Broadmoor allowed him to keep in a second cell. It’s possible he saw one of Murray’s appeals in a consignment of books sent to him by one of his booksellers, and the relationship began. Scouring this literature for useful quotations came naturally to him, and he worked in a very methodical manner. Upon reading a book, he would prepare a small pamphlet headed with the title of the book in question. He would then note interesting words or usages of words in an alphabetical list, followed by their relevant page number. He soon built up a collection of these word indexes, which allowed him to supply the dictionary editors with quotations that were very relevant to the words they were working on. One example of his word indexes can be seen here, in minute handwriting.
Journeys of the mind
The OED archive now contains 42 of Minor’s word indexes, covering titles from philosophy, economics, art, to medicine. But what is interesting is that almost half of them relate to aspects of travel or foreign countries. Minor was no stranger to travel – he was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before moving to America and then on to England. But perhaps incarceration gave him a keener interest in discovering about distant lands.
A number of the books refer to Persia and the East Indies, understandable given Minor’s link to Ceylon. One such book was John Fryer’s snappily titled A New Account of East India and Persia in Eight Letters being Nine Years Travels begun 1672 and finished 1681. A slip written out by Minor from this book can be seen here – it concerns the word guz, an Indian measure of length. The book has gone on to provide quotations for almost 1000 entries in the OED.
Fryer’s book was the story of one man’s travels. Several books cited in Minor’s indexes recount similar adventures, such as The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant (1687), Purchas his Pilgrimage (1613), and A Relation of a Journey begun 1610 by George Sandys (1615). Others take a more historical view – Relations of the Most Famous Kingdoms and Commonweales thorough the World (1611) and Geographical Historie of Africa (1600). Clearly Minor enjoyed reading about the journeys and discoveries of others, perhaps reliving distant memories or travelling vicariously through them. Voyage Around the World (George Anson, 1748) was something of which he could only dream.
Looking in on life
Another interesting area of books which Minor researched is satirical writings about city life. These take a witty and sometimes acerbic view of the customs and manners of urban living. One example is Jonathan Swift, writing as Simon Wagstaff, in A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (1738). In it, he studies the supposed pleasantries of social intercourse, which he felt were often laced with malicious undertones. Another is Remarques on the Humours and Conversations of the Town (1673), a sardonic look at London social life written by ‘a person of quality’. It seems Minor had a sense of humour too.
One such title associates with the history of Oxford University Press. Amusements Serious and Comical for the Meridian of London was written by Tom Brown in 1700. Tom Brown was a translator and satirist who first found fame when studying at Oxford University. It was here that he met Dr. John Fell, the Dean of Christ Church College, and the man who set up Oxford University’s first print shop in the Sheldonian Theatre. Hugely influential in the history of the Press, he had a reputation as a disciplinarian at college. When Brown got into trouble with Fell, it is said that he would be spared expulsion if he could translate a Latin epigram – Brown translated it thus: ‘I do not love thee, Dr Fell, the reason why I cannot tell, but this I know and know full well, I do not love thee Dr Fell.’ He went on to pen several famous writings, including the one Dr. Minor pored over in his little cell and which eventually helped to illustrate more than 200 entries in the OED.
A major, not a minor, help
The keen-eyed amongst you will have noticed that Minor had a penchant for 17th and 18th century literature. In his preface to the fifth volume of the OED, James Murray stated that ‘Second only to the contributions of Dr. Fitzedward Hall, in enhancing our illustration of the literary history of individual words, phrases, and constructions, have been those of Dr. W. C. Minor, received week by week for words at which we are actually working.’ Time well spent, I think.
The opinions and other information contained in the Oxford Dictionaries Online blog posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of OUP.
- Competitions and quizzes (35)
- Dictionaries and lexicography (161)
- English in use (378)
- Grammar and writing help (66)
- Interactive features (48)
- OED Appeals (4)
- Other languages (66)
- Varieties of English (40)
- Word origins (203)
- Word trends and new words (123)