The Invention of the Modern Dictionary
Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.
Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.
Download the episode here.
Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: the invention of the modern dictionary. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.
Emily Brewster: The earliest dictionaries were the fruit of one person's labor, that fruit typically taking decades to ripen into something suitable for a desk or a bookshelf. But in 1864, a dictionary of another kind was born and it forever changed the way lexicography was done. Peter sets the stage.
Peter Sokolowski: We often do think of the dictionary as an eternal document. Like it was always already there. And we have learned by encounters with the public or even emails or letters that some people really do think that; they're upset when the dictionary changes at all: "I liked the dictionary I used when I was in school or when I was young." People do resist language change when it's represented in the dictionary sometimes, but there is a sense of the dictionary being like the Bible or like the Constitution. Something that really is fixed, not something that changes. But here's the big surprise: without revision dictionaries die. And in 2022, when we're talking about this, we can only think of a handful of dictionaries that come up in conversation often, which are the recent ones. We tend to think of Oxford Dictionaries and certainly the Webster tradition.
Peter Sokolowski: And we forget that this 400 years of English monolingual lexicography, a lot of those are dictionaries that have died with their makers. And that includes the so-called first dictionary by someone called Cawdrey, and then Cockerham and Phillips and Blount and Bailey—all these lexicographers who contributed their own piece to this lineage. But we don't know their names anymore. Maybe the most famous of these is Samuel Johnson. When his dictionary came out 1755 in London, it was without question, the big success and the great state of the art of lexicography in the age of enlightenment. And it represented a literary and scientific achievement for sure. And a cultural milestone.
Emily Brewster: Yes. Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster are really the two old-school lexicographers that people in the general public have possibly heard of.
Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. What they have in common among other things is that they worked essentially alone. There was certainly a little research help here and there, but for the most part, they were a one-person show. And so there was this idea that the researcher, the scholar, was the author and the spirit behind this dictionary and that the personality of that author also was reflected in the dictionary. And that really was the state of affairs in English language dictionaries well into the middle of the 1800s. That's fairly recent history.
Ammon Shea: One thing I do want to point out in defense of the forgotten lexicographer is that Johnson did work largely alone, as did all these other lexicographers, but they were still building on the work of their predecessors. And so for instance, Johnson was using an interleaved folio copy of Nathan Bailey's dictionary from some years before for his basic word list. He wasn't just pulling the stuff entirely from his mind. He was standing on the shoulders of those who had come from before him, as well as their works; a portion of Webster's was based on Richardson's dictionary of 1834, which was made with copious use of citations and informed a lot of the Oxford English Dictionary's practices and stuff. So every dictionary is, in meaningful ways, the result of those that came before, whether we recognize their names or not.
Emily Brewster: Even the very earliest monolingual dictionaries were building off multilingual dictionaries.
Ammon Shea: Florio's Italian and English dictionaries giving rise to Cawdrey's monolingual, English dictionary, et cetera.
Emily Brewster: I find that comforting in part because when I imagine the job of Johnson or Webster, and I think about actually having to do what they did, I'm instantly just completely mentally exhausted at the mere prospect. By the time you get to C you just want to retire.
Peter Sokolowski: It's overwhelming to think of.
Emily Brewster: Completely.
Peter Sokolowski: So Webster was born in 1758, just a couple of years after Johnson's dictionary was published. Johnson's dictionary was successful for generations. So Webster also was aware of Johnson and clearly wanted to be essentially the American Johnson. In fact, Johnson's dictionary was the first volume that had as its title A Dictionary of the English Language. That was the official title of Johnson's dictionary. And Webster's 1828 dictionary was called An American Dictionary of the English Language. So it was a very deliberate echo of Johnson's title. He was going to be the American Johnson. And in some sense, that was political: "we are a new country; we have a new idea of citizenship and participation and also language." And so of course there are things that we've talked about, Webster introduced and enforced a number of spelling changes in that work. But here's what happened.
Peter Sokolowski: After Webster died, we know that the printers, the Merriam brothers, took over the publication and the sale of the dictionary, and the sale of the dictionary went pretty well. And it was a good piece of business. But what happened is the next stage, which is a tale of two dictionaries, one of which we all have heard of, Webster's Dictionary, which became the Merriam-Webster tradition. The other one, which most people haven't heard of, is Worcester's Dictionary. There were other dictionaries made in America in the 19th century. Joseph Worcester was a scholar from Boston, and he was a lexicographer who made a kind of abridgment, a shortened version, of Johnson's dictionary because first of all, a smaller book would sell better because it cost less and the copyright wasn't enforced, or there wasn't really trademark or copyright protection at this time. So in 1827, this man Joseph Worcester put out an abridgment of Johnson's dictionary. So he was now in a way, a trained lexicographer. He had done it himself and published this work.
Emily Brewster: And did he Americanize it?
Peter Sokolowski: And he Americanized it for sure. But then 1828 is the big famous year where Webster, working on his own, came up with a book that had been 20 years in the making, his great dictionary in 1828. Now it's also true that his publisher wanted to publish a small version because it's well-known to us today as it was then, that a mini dictionary that cost much less would sell in greater numbers and often was the difference between profit and loss for these projects. So they immediately wanted to make a smaller version of Webster's dictionary. Now he was already elderly at this point. And so he said "Fine, but I really don't want to do it. Let's hire a freelancer." And they hired a freelancer and his name was Joseph Worcester. The same man who had just done a revision of Johnson's dictionary. So the publishers thought, this is a perfect idea. By the way, this publisher is not the Merriams yet.
Peter Sokolowski: This is Webster's own publisher before the Merriams took over. And they desperately courted Joseph Worcester as the only person really qualified to do this work. He actually refused initially because he said, look, I'm working on my own dictionary. I have my own work to do. I don't really want to do this work for hire that you're offering. But they ultimately did convince him. They said, "Look, it's a short project. That dictionary is brand new." And they paid him a good amount of money. And sure enough, he produced a small-like school version of Webster dictionary. That came out in 1829.
Emily Brewster: Was that school dictionary a direct competitor of the dictionary that he had just made?
Peter Sokolowski: Probably was, but it was sold by different people. So for him as a scholar, he was being paid for his own work. And because people didn't necessarily own copyrights in the way that they do today, he probably recognized this was work for hire and a good salary for a year or so. And so he took it as that and nothing much more. And then in 1830, his own dictionary comes out. So we have a quick succession of books: 1827, the abridgment of Johnson; 1828, the big Webster dictionary; 1829, the abridgment of Webster; and finally 1830, the first dictionary signed by someone called Joseph Worcester. But the problem is Webster knew, just like we know, how long it takes to write a dictionary. It's a very long and arduous process. So Webster immediately cried foul. He said, this guy probably just copied my stuff that we paid him to work on and then put out his own dictionary.
Peter Sokolowski: It turns out, of course, Worcester had actually honestly been working on his own for years before these projects. And then the accumulation of these dictionaries right in a cluster of years is more a coincidence than anything else. It's just the way that they were released. However, it did bring up a lot of bad blood and competition between Webster and Worcester. And this is the first time that they encountered this competition. Then what happened? Basically, we're making a long story very short. Webster dies. The publication is taken over by the Merriams. They reprint the dictionary in 1847. But in 1846, again, very close in proximity, Worcester puts out his next edition, which is a bigger version of his own dictionary. So again, this competition is renewed and now we have this fresh dictionary from Worcester and this fresh edition, this fresh printing of what is now already a 20 year old book from the Webster edition printed by the Merriams.
Emily Brewster: The 1847 Merriam-Webster Dictionary was really just a slight reworking of Noah Webster's 1841.
Peter Sokolowski: That's right.
Emily Brewster: Which was a slight abridgment of the 1828.
Peter Sokolowski: There were some new words added, but a lot of the basic core entries had never been touched since that original 1828 printing. You're starting to get a dictionary that's a little bit aging competing with one that's brand new and getting a lot of attention. Again, you get this sense of competition that was commercial, that wasn't just intellectual. That was sort of the bare-knuckle 19th century business, and sometimes dirty business.
Ammon Shea: If we're going to be honest, that dictionary had some warts. 19th-century linguistics was taking off at this point and the Grimm Brothers and [Franz] Bopp, there were a number of linguists who were making significant advances in the field of language study. And Webster had not caught up with those yet.
Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. Among the ticking time bombs in Webster's dictionary were two artifacts of his personal culture. One was his devoted religious beliefs. And in some of his definitions, he would include little mini sermons, I would almost call them. Those sermons weren't really lexical. They weren't really about the word. They were more about the culture or the mores of the time. That's something that doesn't necessarily age very well. It also comes from a period of time when it has to be said, for example, newspapers in 18th and 19th century in America were very partisan documents. And in a sense, Webster's dictionary was itself a bit of a partisan document because that's what he interpreted his job to be. We today view dictionaries as being more neutral and objective documents of the reportage of linguistic fact. And we think of newspapers as being more objective today than they were at that time.
Peter Sokolowski: The culture has shifted and his dictionary was representing the older view of these things. And with the etymologies: Webster's own belief in the Old Testament, that the first languages that humans spoke were spoken by Adam and Eve themselves—Webster called himself a born-again Christian after the Second Great Awakening. Again, a big cultural moment in America, but that was something that would harm the dictionary long-term because he rejected the linguistic advances of the Grimm Brothers, of Bopp, of Smith, of other linguists who had developed the Indo-European model of the evolution of world languages.
Emily Brewster: These Grimm Brothers are not the same Grimm Brothers of mythology...?
Peter Sokolowski: They are the same.
Emily Brewster: That's fairy tales, sorry, not mythology. I did not realize that those fairytale Grimm Brothers were also linguists.
Peter Sokolowski: Among the best early etymologists, in the modern sense of etymology. Websters etymologies for Latin words that are transparently Latin, a word like importune, are fine. He was an educated man of the 18th century. He knew Latin. Those words are fine. The problematic words are the words, especially of Old English or Germanic origin, which he asserts ultimately go back to the Aramaic—what he called, Chaldee that would've been biblical Hebraic languages. And of course we know that these are different families today.
Emily Brewster: And he was not so fluent in Old English as he thought he was.
Peter Sokolowski: No. And he would make notes, for example, that showed that he thought that words were related strictly by the sound of the word. For example, the word speak was related to beak and peak and pick. Of course they're not related at all to this word.
Emily Brewster: No, no, no.
Peter Sokolowski: And he's even a little bit arrogant about it. He says at the entry for speak "It is easy to see that the root of this word is aligned to that of beak, peak and pick." And of course it was only easy to see for him. So the Merriams inherited a good business and put energy and efficiency and a reboot of the Webster Dictionary to reprint it into a single volume, which is why, by the way, to this day, we tend to think of a dictionary as being one big fat book. Whereas before that time, if you were an educated person in the mid 19th century, you would've thought of an English dictionary as being two big fat books, because that was the way that Johnson's Dictionary and Websters Dictionary, during his lifetime, were presented.
Peter Sokolowski: So the Merriams, as a matter of business said, it's a lot easier to ship a single volume than to ship two. And so they, with their edition in 1847 recast type set into smaller type, and they put it all into one binding and then they added something that no one had ever added, to my knowledge, to an English language dictionary before, which was a stamp on the spine of the book to allow the consumer to know that they were getting the whole dictionary, and that word was unabridged. And that was not the official title. It was not on the title page. It was not on the copyright of the book. It was simply the informal word on the spine that told the consumer that this was A to Z, the whole dictionary.
Ammon Shea: I think I may have to disagree with you on one point here, which is that I still think that the overwhelming majority of the volumes, totally, published as dictionaries in the 18th century were single volume, because Bailey was astonishingly popular throughout the entirety of the 18th century, as were Dyche, Pardon, and Ash, and a number of other people, almost all of whom published their dictionaries as single volumes. Johnson was really one of the exceptions, and then leading into the 19th century, same thing with Richardson. Most dictionaries, I think at that point, were still single volumes because they weren't that big yet.
Peter Sokolowski: Ammon, my point is exactly that it was size, it wasn't a big thing for wealthy customers to put in their libraries. Johnson had this model of two big books and Webster followed it.
Emily Brewster: Then Oxford just ran with that.
Peter Sokolowski: And they ran away with it.
Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back with more on Webster's Unabridged of 1864. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.
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Emily Brewster: Our discussion of the implications of Webster's 1864 continues.
Peter Sokolowski: The Merriams found this competition with Worcester, and Worcester was a good scholar. He wrote definitions that were a little bit simpler maybe than Webster. Webster was of course a great definer, but they were still following a model that was set by Johnson, which was mostly to list everything they could think of at a word. So what happened in this period, I'm talking now about the 1850s, when Worcester was now working on his Magnum Opus, a big book, one that would be bigger than the Merriam-Webster dictionary at the time, and would perhaps be the state of the art of English language dictionaries, when it finally came out in 1860. The Merriams started thinking, "What if we started taking our dictionary apart and putting it back together?" In other words, revising the work of the now-dead Noah Webster and making it new. This was the part that was new and original. Because no one had really done that in a systematic way to the work of Cockerham or Bailey.
Peter Sokolowski: There were some [revisions] made to Johnson's dictionary. There was a small attempt to keep Johnson's dictionary up-to-date. It was semi-successful, but the Merriams had something on an entirely different scale. They wanted to industrialize dictionary production. And they wanted to do it quickly, which meant that it had to be done by a staff, a team of people, not just an individual smart guy as had been the model up to that point. So they went to Webster's son-in-law, Chauncey Goodrich, who was a professor at Yale, and they asked him to oversee this project. And essentially he used the Yale faculty as his staff, the different professors who all had different expertise to contribute revisions and to redo the dictionary. And this resulted in some new policies, one of which was a new invention, which was the subsense. So that if you were to look in Webster's dictionary at a word like drum or a word like dry, you would see one, two, three, four listed entries.
Peter Sokolowski: But in the case of Webster's original dictionary, if you looked up drum, for example, you would see "in machinery, a short cylinder revolving on an axis," and "sheet iron in the shape of a drum," or "in architecture, the upright part of a cupula," or "the drum of the ear." In other words, things shaped like a drum. What the Merriams and Goodrich decided to do was to gather those together in subsenses in a single sense and list them as A, B, C. This is the first time that subsenses were used. Anything that was a thing shaped like a drum should be gathered and defined together so that you could see the organization semantically of this word much more clearly.
Emily Brewster: Did they use the such as that we use now? For example, a definition now might say, "a thing that is shaped like a drum" after defining what a drum is, "such as, a blah, blah, blah."
Peter Sokolowski: They did use as. So it already started there. So sense three, in this revision, said "anything resembling a drum form, as, a : sheet iron radiator, b : a small cylindrical box, c anatomy : the tympanum of the ear"; [then] architecture, mechanical engineering, all these other things.
Emily Brewster: So, they did exactly that. And we expanded it to such as when space constraints were no longer something to contend with.
Peter Sokolowski: That was a huge innovation, and also a way to look at Webster's work with a critical eye and recast the definitions in a way that made more semantic sense. Grouping these words together was an important job of the lexicographer.
Emily Brewster: How big was the staff?
Peter Sokolowski: Not huge? I think it was 20 to 25 people. It wasn't a big group of people. Of course, the entire faculty of Yale in the 1860s was I think 30 people. It was really, really small. The Merriam's motivation here was clearly a business motivation. They saw competition. They wanted also to renew this dictionary. They hired a German etymologist—the Grimm Brothers of course were German—and many of the best etymologists at this time were working in Germany. And by correspondence, he revised—in fact, he rewrote a hundred percent of the etymologies. So Webster etymologies were thrown away completely.
Emily Brewster: Wow. 100% of them.
Peter Sokolowski: They were totally thrown away. And this new man whose name was Carl Augustus Gustav Mahn, M-A-H-N, his work was so important to this book that some people refer to this edition as the Webster-Mahn Edition. This change really showed that the Merriams recognized the strongest part of Webster's Dictionary was the defining text. Not necessarily the order or orchestration of that text, but his defining words were very well done and hard to beat. And yet his etymologies were at that point, basically scholarly, indefensible. And so they had to change them.
Emily Brewster: This makes me think about the family politics, right? Chauncey Goodrich is Webster's son-in-law. I wonder how long he had been like, oh, my father-in-law's etymologies are so bad.
Peter Sokolowski: That's an interesting question because there was definitely collusion behind Webster's back, and it made Webster very angry. Before he died, as we mentioned, Joseph Worcester had been hired to be, very honestly, reducing the size of the big dictionary. And his editor was Chauncey Goodrich. The same man in their correspondence agreed in some cases to leave out Webster's very eccentric new spelling recommendations. Some of them were kept that have become standard, like dropping the U from words, like honor and color and humor. But some of them words like the word island without an S the word tongue T-U-N-G had been proposed by Webster—they quietly removed and did not tell Webster. And Webster was incensed that they made these editorial decisions without him.
Emily Brewster: Oh, I bet he was.
Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, but basically these were two guys who said, look, the habits of language of scholars. These were scholarly men who are a generation younger than Webster. And they said, there's no reason to perpetuate some of these very eccentric ideas; let's make the dictionary more in line with what we see in print, more commonly. So they began to use this common-sense, descriptive approach to lexicography. And that was itself a modern step.
Ammon Shea: They knew that nobody was going to spell machine M-A-S-H-E-E-N.
Peter Sokolowski: There you go.
Ammon Shea: No matter how hard Webster tried.
Peter Sokolowski: And that was an important step in the process. Because it also showed some editorial independence. There was another problem later with the family, because when William Webster, the son of Noah Webster, recognized the extent of these revisions, the etymologies were all being thrown away—and with them, essentially, a lot of Webster's ideology, as well—Websters said to the Merriams, "Take the name off the book. It's not his dictionary anymore." He thought the idea of authorship of a dictionary was more like the authorship of a novel or a creative work than a work of reference. And this gets to another modern idea, which is marketing, branding. To that the Merriams basically said, look, we've made your family wealthy with the sale of this title. And we think it's more important to keep the title, Webster's Dictionary, than to keep any specific element within it. And our job is to make it new and make it fresh and bring it up to date.
Emily Brewster: But one can certainly understand William Webster's feelings about this. He had watched his father spend decades writing these books, mostly single handedly. It's not at all surprising that he would consider them to be the work of an author.
Peter Sokolowski: Right. Exactly. I'll give you one example of a definition that had wonderful wording from Webster, the word rectitude. And the way that it was revised, what was left. These were all Webster's words, but not all the ones that he had initially put in the dictionary. His initial definition was much, much longer, but what remained was, "Rightness of principle or practice, exact conformity to truth or to the rules prescribed for moral conduct either by divine or human laws." That's Webster's definition that was retained. But Webster himself added this next part that was removed by the Merriams and Goodrich. "Rectitude of mind is the disposition to act in conformity to any known standard of right, truth or justice. Rectitude of conduct is the actual conformity to such a standard. Perfect rectitude belongs only to the Supreme being. The more nearly the rectitude of men approaches to the standard of the divine law, the more exalted and dignified is their character. Want of rectitude is not only sinful, but debasing."
Peter Sokolowski: So this is the material they removed from the dictionary in order to make it more fresh and modern, but also to make it more lexical. To recognize that this is really a sermon and it doesn't really belong in a reference work.
Ammon Shea: It is worth pointing out that the 1828, in a facsimile edition, is still printed. My understanding is that it sells somewhere between 10- and 20,000 copies a year. We have let the copyright lapse, unfortunately, and it is sold by religious groups who use it primarily for homeschooling.
Peter Sokolowski: That's right. In fact, the online version of Websters 1828 dictionary, which is by the way, a useful tool that I do use frequently. And the current facsimile that you can buy of the 1828 dictionary, presented by basically Bible publishers. Sometimes at conferences, I'd be approached by people who would tell me that for homeschooling or for a close reading of biblical texts, they preferred Webster's Dictionary. I would hear sometimes people say to me, it's the only dictionary that's based on the Bible. Which in a way is sort of true in a way is also sort of not true. I'm not sure that's the best way to educate a child in the 21st century. But it's an interesting approach.
Emily Brewster: It's certainly not based on recent biblical scholarship.
Peter Sokolowski: No, no, no.
Emily Brewster: So also Webster was a scholar of the Bible, not principally, right?
Peter Sokolowski: Right.
Emily Brewster: In sort of an ancillary way. And he was exposed only to 19th century biblical scholarship.
Peter Sokolowski: Right. So it's a complicated and interesting question. There's just a couple other factors I'll mention here, because we're now working up to the publication of the dictionary in 1864. Just before Worcester publishes his big one he also announces that he's going to include engravings, the neat little dictionary drawings that you see in dictionaries today that are quite common, but that were not common before. There are no illustrations in Webster's own dictionary from his lifetime. There are none in Johnson's dictionary. And this announcement to the press was seen by the Merriams. And they devilishly said, wait a minute, we don't want to lose this business opportunity. And so they immediately and very quickly, and in a haphazard way, gathered as many printing plates as they could of engravings of animals, historical costume, mechanical engineering tools, flowers, hats, shoes, anything you could get. And they couldn't re-typeset the book, as that was a laborious thing, but they could print these new illustrations and stick them all in the front of the book and retitle their book as The Pictorial Websters.
Peter Sokolowski: And they brought that to market sooner than Worcester's book got to market, so it was a dirty trick to beat him to being first. It was a cheap shot. They did publish before Worcester's book came out. When Worcester's book finally came out in 1860, it has to be said, it was recognized to be a very excellent dictionary. Scholarship has more or less proved that he was an honest guy and not plagiarizing, even though the Merriams accused him of plagiarism as a business tactic. This is often called the War of the Dictionaries, as a book by that title that describes this. And we'll talk more about that maybe in another episode. But this was an ugly business reality of the moment. I once asked the late Madeline Kripke, a collector of dictionaries, which was the better dictionary at this time.
Peter Sokolowski: And she said, without hesitation, Worcester's was better. Because it was newer. It was fresher. He was a younger scholar, but he also didn't have this baggage that Webster had carried over. And now into the 1860s, really old scholarship that was showing its age. Also, new words were added to the dictionary from the period words like adobe and hacienda from westward expansion. Words like ballast, freight car, freight train, locomotive and rail were added to this edition because of steam engine. Words from the Civil War, like revolver, breach loader, and the word __ambulance_ were added. And so we see a lot of important new vocabulary being added to this dictionary. And then finally in 1864, this edition was published as really the first great and thorough revision of a dictionary. And it was very well received. It was regarded as being maybe the state of the art.
Peter Sokolowski: One other aspect we didn't mention is that because of these new etymologies the order of the senses, the order of the definitions in this dictionary, were made in etymological order, which I believe was the first time that was systematically done in an English language dictionary. And that was detailed in the preface of this work. And that became the standard by which the Webster tradition would be done for 150 years. And indeed, of course it was the model for what would come later as the Oxford English Dictionary. This was the edition used by James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the subsequent edition of this book, the 1890 edition, which was based very much on this 1864, as essentially the model for the Oxford English Dictionary. The entire philosophy behind the making of this 1864 edition remained intact until Webster's Third in 1961. Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, the big one, 1890, 1909, and 1934.
Peter Sokolowski: Those big additions were essentially just additions to this one. They were revised slightly, but the etymological approach, the defining philosophy, the ordering of senses, all of those remained in place. Those policies were not changed again for a hundred years. And so this was a huge step in the Webster tradition, which you could now view from 2021 as really having two big inflection points before the internet age. Which is to say Webster wrote his dictionary, which was substantially unchanged until 1864. And those policies were substantially unchanged until 1961. And I think that's very important if you are into historical lexicography, to keep those big shifts in mind, because they represented huge philosophical shifts of the way we approach language description and definition.
Emily Brewster: The 1864 really changed that harmless drudge, the sole worker laboring for years and years over a work with scant help from anyone else.
Peter Sokolowski: Our retired president, John Morse, he once said, Webster's Unabridged of 1864 moved dictionary making from the herculean, but idiosyncratic effort of one individual to a disciplined and methodical effort of a well-organized group. And that well-organized group of course became the editorial staff of Merriam-Webster.
Ammon Shea: Speaking of idiosyncratic—and I'm using that in a very extended sense of the term—the 1864 edition did include William Minor, who was made exceedingly famous in large part by Simon Winchester's book, The Professor and the Madman, in which he is the titular madman. He was an American physician who moved to London and unfortunately killed two Irish laborers. He was mentally deranged. He was imprisoned in the Broadmoor Insane Asylum for the Criminally Ill for a number of decades, and became one of the major contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary, because he was apparently exceedingly good at finding citations for words which had none. And he had a long and glorious correspondence with James Murray, the editor in chief of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Murray would write to him and say, I have no citations for duck in this sense. And William Minor would provide a large number of them because apparently he was also still a man of means.
Ammon Shea: He had a suite of rooms at Broadmoor. He had, like, a two room suite where he lived, and he outfitted it with an extensive personal library and spent much of his time just reading books and keeping copious notes of citations that he thought would be useful. This is hugely important to a dictionary that's collecting citations, because one of the things is that everybody wants to read Shakespeare. And so you say, okay, we need citations of use, and you get 5,000 Shakespeare quotations. And then, like, three from the Date and Daily Register, or something—there's just no balance. There are certain words that are missing out, because they're very hard to find citations for. But Minor was very, very good at this. He kept these great little notebooks, which I've seen—his handwriting is incredibly tiny. He writes in, like, seven point type—tiny, tiny little letters, but very, very clear. And it was an enormous asset to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Emily Brewster: Do you think that Minor told Murray that he had cut his lexicographical teeth on the Webster Dictionary?
Ammon Shea: I assume it would've come up at some point, though what was interesting is that Minor was interested in the role of the science editor. At one point, I went into some of our archives that are held of the Beinecke Library at Yale and found some of the correspondence that the main editors of the 1864 had about Minor. And they all said, yeah, you know, he's all right, but he's not really that good. He has trouble with defining things. I think that is what the issue with him was. So he had definite lexicographic strengths, and citation gathering was chief among them perhaps, but he wasn't really that great.
Peter Sokolowski: This story of course became a massive bestseller, and even a feature film in which Mel Gibson plays Murray and Sean Penn plays William Minor. We've already said that James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary used this edition, this 1864 edition, as one of the sources for the Oxford English Dictionary project. And yet this man who was a medical student at Yale and among the staff of the Merriam revisers of this dictionary, then moved to London and became a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary. What's interesting to me is that it shows that these two traditions, the Webster tradition and the Oxford English Dictionary, were connected at their very origins. The Webster 1864 edition sold really well. Joseph Worcester died in 1865, and his publisher did not do what the Merriams did. He did not keep that book alive with revisions, and it simply faded away.
Peter Sokolowski: And by 1900, it was still sort of on remainder stacks in bookstores. And his name is almost completely forgotten today because he didn't have the advocacy of a group like the Merriams who basically said, this is important enough to keep alive and important enough to basically rebuild from scratch. It turns out that the work of revision is the most important thing that keeps dictionaries current. What they later learned was keeping dictionaries current was a big help in making them sell very well. And so this has a commercial side to it, for sure, as a motivation. To me, that's what's interesting about this story, is that the intersection of an American business story, one of the oldest businesses still doing essentially what it was created to do, and the scholarship that goes behind the research into language that we still do today. It's a deep story that really rewards revisiting. And so we'll get back to the definitions and the etymologies and the usage notes in the 1864 edition in a future episode.
Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day, and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster, in collaboration with New England Public Media.