Monday, January 8, 2018


One of the early attempts at an English Language dictionary was the work of a man of spirit and opinion called Samuel Johnson. In his dictionary which was published in the 1750's he defined the word "Patron" this way. "A wretch who supports with indolence and is paid with flattery." His definition of "Refuse" (pronounced refyoos, or some call it trash) goes this way "That which remains disregarded when the rest is taken." Samuel Johnson's almost kittenish view of objectivity around words came to a screeching halt in the Victorian era with the introduction of what's called the Oxford English Dictionary, the first edition of which was at last completed in 1928, and which from 1879 until his death in 1915 was edited in part by a man called Sir James Augustus Henry Murray. During his time as editor he was responsible for words that began with A-D, H-K, O-P and T. James Murray was a Scotsman, he was a lexicographer and he was a philologist, all of which meant his understanding of language was guided by a more anthropological approach to the meaning of words, it was serious business and had nothing to do with humor or entertainment. Mind you there's not a great deal of distance between Johnson's "wind from behind"  and  "A slight explosion between the legs" which was the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of "fart" when I was like a totally stable misunderstood nine year old.

One of Murray's techniques for researching the definition of words was to seek assistance from the general public. There were quite strict rules for those who wished to contribute, and many of those who made the effort erred upon the Johnsonian side and came up with all sorts of erroneous and puerile  examples of word usage, which is always a problem when dealing with the less dedicated masses, who do tend to wander in their understanding of logical conclusions. The great example from what now feels like 50 years ago was the General Public of the United Kingdom's decision in 2016 to name the National Environment Research Council's 200 million £ polar research ship, Boaty McBoatface.  A decision by poll which I'm sure would have sent Sir James Murray to turning in his grave, but which I rather like and which very adequately sums up what happens to empires. All the same one of the major contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary during Murray's tenure as editor, was a man called  Dr. William Chester Minor. An apparently upstanding contributor who'd  greatly impressed Murray with his detailed research into meaning of words as they were used in the literature of the day and in the past. The two men corresponded regularly and over the years a bromance developed. Time came for the two scholars to finally meet. Dr. Minor's postal address was the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, in Berkshire, England, where to Murray's surprise Dr. William Chester Minor was an inmate, not the Governor. Either way, I still prefer Johnson's definition of Patron and of Refuse.

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