May 1, 1852 An Awful Language

“In early times some sufferer had to sit up with a toothache, and he put in the time inventing the German language”. – Mark Twain

Planning a business trip from Sunny Cape Cod™ to Presque Isle Maine I found myself pondering. What shall I do with the eternity it will take me to get there or six hours, fifty minutes, whichever comes first. I hit upon the idea of learning German, and why not? Books on Tape are free at my local library. I shall arrive at my meeting with mind fresh and horizons expanded by new adventures, in learning.

Right.

I emerged from my rolling dungeon some seven hours later, blinking like a marmot, flummoxed, exhausted and thoroughly convinced, of my own inadequacy. How the hell is anyone supposed to learn that stuff?

Turns out, I was not alone. No less a giant of the literary world than Mark Twain once said a person of modest gift could learn English in 30 hours, French in thirty days and German, in thirty years.

“I would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.”

Mark Twain

Consider for example, verb separation. The German verb ankommen is a separable verb, a trait wisely shunned by the rest of the world’s 6,500 languages save for Dutch, Afrikaans and Hungarian:

a. Sie kommt sofort an. she comes immediately at – ‘She is arriving immediately.’
b. Sie kam sofort an. she came immediately at – ‘She arrived immediately.’
c. Sie wird sofort ankommen. she will immediately at.come – ‘She will arrive immediately.’
d. Sie ist sofort angekommen. she is immediately at.come – ‘She arrived immediately.’

Hat tip Wikipedia for that one

And forget about Gender. Every noun has a gender in German for which there are no means save brute memorization, to learn. Then it turns out, a young lady has no gender at all while a turnip, does. A fish scale has a gender but a fishwife, an actual female, does not.

Illustration by Max Kellerer from German edition of Die Million Pfund-Note from the Dave Thomson collection

“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it”.

Mark Twain, a Tramp Abroad

Take an art class sometime and the first thing you’ll learn about, is perspective. In the German language whole sentences run together into single words so long as themselves, to have perspective. Consider, “Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen“. For the German as a second language learner, what does that even mean!?

It’s all in the perspective

‘Never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.’

Mark Twain

Today we remember Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm for their collection of folklore and fairy tales, first published in 1812 and expanded seven times, by 1857. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel. There are few among us not steeped in their work but, did you know. They also wrote the dictionary of the German language? Sort of.

Jacob and Wilhelm, the Brothers Grimm

In 1837, the Brothers Grimm needed to pay the rent. Taking a local publisher up on their offer the first part was released on this day, in 1852. Two years later, the project included ‘A’ through “Biermolke”. (Beer whey). “Biermolke” through E came about in 1860, the year after Wilhelm, died. Jacob died three years later with the last entry, “Frucht,” “Fruit”.

The Grimm brothers project outlived the formation of the German state and two world wars at last coming to completion, in 1961.

The “Deutsches Wörterbuch“, the dictionary of the German language fills a whopping 330,000 headwords in 32 volumes. By way of comparison, the Oxford English Dictionary is enough to make a bookshelf groan, with 20 bound volumes.

124 years in compiling and THAT was all, by native speakers. So, about that 30 years thing, to learn the German language. Sure thing, Mark ol’ pal. Sure thing.

December 6, 1768 The Murderer’s Dictionary

Over seventy years in compilation, only a single individual is credited with more entries in the greatest reference work in the history of the English language than this one murderer, working from a cell in a mental institution.

For the great reference works of the English language, the beginnings were often surprisingly modest. The outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishment known as the Scottish Enlightenment produced among other works the Encyclopedia Britannica, first published on December 6, 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Webster’s dictionary got its beginnings with a single infantrymen of the American Revolution, who went on to codify what would become the standardized system of spelling for “American English“.  In Noah Webster’s dictionary, ‘colour’ became ‘color’, and programme’ became ‘program’. It was a novel concept at a time when the very thought of a “correct“ way of spelling, was new and unfamiliar.

Among the entire catalog of works there is no tale so strange as the Oxford English dictionary, and the convicted murderer who helped bring it to life. 

No, really. From an insane asylum, no less.

Dissatisfied with what were at that time a spare four reference works including Webster’s dictionary, the Philological society of London first discussed what was to become the standard reference work of the English language, in 1857.

The work was expected to take 10 years in compilation and cover some 64,000 pages.  The editors were off, by about sixty years.  Five years into the project the team had made it all the way up, to “ant“.

William Chester Minor was a physician around this time, serving with the Union army during the American Civil War.   

The role of this experience in the man’s later psychosis, is impossible to know.  Minor was in all likelihood a paranoid schizophrenic, a condition poorly understood in his day.

As a combat surgeon, Minor saw things no man was ever meant to see.  Terrible mutilation was inflicted on both sides at the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness.  Hundreds were wounded and unable to get out of the way of the brush fire, burning alive before the horrified eyes of comrades and foe alike, those poor unfortunate sufferers too broken to move.  One soldier would later write:  It was as though “hell itself had usurped the place of earth“.

William Chester minor

At one point, Dr. Minor was ordered to brand the forehead of an Irish deserter with the letter “D”.  The episode scarred the soldier, and left the doctor with paranoid delusions. The Irish were coming to ‘get him’. He Knew they were.

In his paranoid delusions, the faceless form of man would slither out of the attic at night and watch Minor as he slept, in his hands a tray of metal biscuits, slathered in poison. The Fenian Brotherhood was out to Get him. He could almost hear their dark whispered conversations, on gaslit streets.

As a child born to New England missionaries working in Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka), Minor was comfortable with the idea of foreign travel as a means of dealing with difficulty. He took a military pension and moved to London in 1871, to escape the demons who were by that time, closing in.

Minor’s tormentors followed. He would lie in his bed at night frozen with fear and each night, his tormenter would return. Regular visits to Scotland Yard would result in little more than polite thanks, and a few useless notes scribbled on paper. Dr. Minor would have to deal with this himself. He took to sleeping with a loaded Colt .38, beneath his pillow.

On February 17, 1862, Minor woke to find the shadow of a man, standing over him. The apparition dove for the window and Minor followed him, into the street.

It was 2:00 in the morning and hardly anyone was out, save for one man. George Merrett was a father of 6 with a pregnant wife, who worked at the Red Lion Brewery, as a coal stoker. He was walking to work. 

Minor’s nighttime apparitions were nothing but the paranoid delusions, of a broken mind. The three or four bullets he fired at a man walking to work, were very real. George Merrett was dead before the police got there.

Broadmoor-outside
Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane

Minor was tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity, and remanded “until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known” to the Broadmoor institution for the criminally insane. Victorian England was by no means ‘enlightened’ by modern standards, and inmates were always referred to as ‘criminals’ and ‘lunatics’. Never as ‘patients’. Yet Broadmoor, located on 290 acres in the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire was England’s newest such asylum, and a long way from previous such institutions.

Minor was housed in block 2, the “Swell Block”, where his military pension and family wealth afforded him two rooms instead of the usual one.

Minor would acquire books, so many over time that one room was converted to a library. 

Surprisingly, it was Merritt’s widow Eliza, who delivered many of his books.  The pair became friends and Minor used a portion of his wealth to “pay” for his crime, and to help the widow raise her six kids.

Dr. James Murray assumed editorship of the “Big Dictionary” of English in 1879, and issued an appeal in magazines and newspapers, for outside contributions. Whether this seemed a shot at redemption to William Minor or merely something to do with his time is anyone’s guess, but Minor had nothing but time. And books.

William Minor collected his first quotation in 1880 and continued to do so for twenty years, always signing his submissions: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.

murray-at-work-scriptorium
Dr. “Murray at work in his scriptorium, a dedicated room filled with books, at Oxford University (date unknown)”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

The scope of the man’s work was prodigious, he himself an enigma, assumed to be some country gentlemen.  Perhaps one of the overseers, at the asylum.

In 1897, “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” failed to attend the Great Dictionary dinner.  Dr. Murray decided to meet his mysterious contributor in person and finally did so, in 1901.  In his cell.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when this Oxford don was ushered into the office of Broadmoor’s director, only to learn the man he was searching for, was an inmate.

Dr. Minor would carefully index and document each entry, which editors compared with the earliest such word use submitted by other lexicographers. In this manner over 10,000 of his submissions made it into the finished work including the words ‘colander’, ‘countenance’ and ‘ulcerated’.

By 1902, Minor’s paranoid delusions had crowded out what remained, of his mind.    He believed he was being kidnapped and spirited away to Istanbul where he was sexually abused and forced to commit such abuse, himself.  His submissions came to an end. Home Secretary Winston Churchill ordered Minor deported back to the United States, following a 1910 episode in which the man emasculated himself, with a knife.

The madman lived out the last ten years of his life in various institutions for the criminally insane. William Chester Minor died in 1920 and went to his rest in a small and inauspicious grave, in Connecticut.

Over seventy years in compilation, only a single individual is credited with more entries in the greatest reference work in the history of the English language than this one murderer, working from a cell in a mental institution.

oed-volumes
Oxford English Dictionary

December 6, 1768 The Murderer’s Dictionary

Among the entire catalog of works there is no tale so queer as the Oxford English dictionary, and the convicted murderer who helped to bring it into being.  From an insane asylum, no less.

For the great reference works of the English language, the beginnings were often surprisingly modest. Encyclopedia Britannica was first published on this day in 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland: part of the Scottish enlightenment. Webster’s dictionary got its beginnings with a single infantrymen of the American Revolution, who went on to codify what would become the standardized system of spelling for “American English“.  In Noah Webster’s dictionary, ‘colour’ became ‘color’, and programme’ became ‘program’, a novel concept at a time when the thought of a “correct“ way of spelling, was a new and unfamiliar idea.

Among the entire catalog of works there is no tale so queer as the Oxford English dictionary, and the convicted murderer who helped bring it into being.  From an insane asylum, no less.

Dissatisfied with what were at that time a spare four reference works including Webster’s dictionary, the Philological society of London first discussed what was to become the standard reference work of the English language, in 1857. The work was expected to take 10 years in compilation and cover some 64,000 pages.  The editors were off by sixty years.  Five years into the project, the team had made it all the way to “ant“.

Minor
Dr. William Chester Minor

William Chester Minor was a physician around this time, serving the Union army during the American Civil War.   

The role of this experience in the man’s later psychosis, is impossible to know. Minor was in all likelihood a paranoid schizophrenic, a condition poorly understood in his day.

As a combat surgeon, Minor saw things that no man was ever meant to see.  Terrible mutilation was inflicted on both sides at the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness.  Hundreds were wounded and unable to get out of the way of the brush fire, burning alive those sufferers too broken to move, before the horrified eyes of comrades and enemies, alike.  One soldier would later write:  It was as though “hell itself had usurped the place of earth“.

Dr. Minor was ordered to brand the forehead of an Irish deserter, with the letter “D”.  The episode scarred the soldier, and left the doctor with paranoid delusions that the Irish were coming to ‘get him’.

As a child born to New England missionaries working in Ceylon, Minor was well adjusted to the idea of foreign travel, as a means of dealing with travail. He took a military pension and moved to London in 1871, to escape the demons who were by that time, closing in.

One day, Minor shot and killed one George Merritt, a stoker who was walking to work.  He believed the man had broken into his room.  The trial was published widely, the “Lambeth Tragedy” revealing the full extent of Minor’s delusional state, to the public.

Minor was judged not guilty on grounds of insanity, and remanded “until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known”, to the Broadmoor institution for the criminally insane. Victorian England was by no means ‘enlightened’ by modern standards, and inmates were always referred to as ‘criminals’ and ‘lunatics’. Never as ‘patients’. Yet Broadmoor, located on 290 acres in the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire was England’s newest such asylum, and a long way from previous such institutions.

Minor was housed in block 2, the “Swell Block”, where his military pension and family wealth afforded him two rooms, instead of the usual one. In time, Minor acquired so many books that one room was converted to a library.  Surprisingly, it was Merritt’s widow Eliza, who delivered many of the books.  The pair became friends, and Minor used a portion of his wealth to “pay” for his crime, and to help the widow raise her six kids.

Broadmoor-outside
Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane

Dr. James Murray assumed editorship of the “Big Dictionary” of English in 1879, and issued an appeal in magazines and newspapers, for outside contributions. Whether this seemed a shot at redemption to William Minor or merely something to do with his time is anyone’s guess, but Minor had nothing but time. And books.

William Minor collected his first quotation in 1880 and continued to do so for twenty years, always signing his submissions: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.

The scope of the man’s work was prodigious, he himself an enigma, assumed to be some country gentlemen.  Perhaps one of the overseers, at the asylum.

In 1897, “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” failed to attend the Great Dictionary dinner.  Dr. Murray decided to meet his mysterious contributor in person and finally did so, four years later.  In his cell. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, when this Oxford don was ushered into the office of Broadmoor’s director, only to learn that the man he looked for, was an inmate.

murray-at-work-scriptorium
Dr. “Murray at work in his scriptorium, a dedicated room filled with books, at Oxford University (date unknown)”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

Dr. Minor would carefully index and document each entry, which editors compared with the earliest such word use submitted by other lexicographers. In this manner, over 10,000 of his submissions made it into the finished work, including the words ‘colander’, ‘countenance’ and ‘ulcerated’.

By 1902, Minor’s paranoid delusions had crowded out his mind.  His submissions came to an end.  What monsters lurked inside the man’s head is anyone’s guess.  Home Secretary Winston Churchill ordered Minor to be removed back home to the United States, following a 1910 episode in which Minor emasculated himself, with a knife.

The madman lived out the last ten years of his life, in various institutions for the criminally insane. William Chester Minor died in 1920 and went to his rest in a small inauspicious grave, in Connecticut.

Over seventy years in compilation, only one single individual is credited with more entries to the greatest reference work in the history of the English language, than this one murderer, working from a home for lunatics.

oed-volumes
Oxford English Dictionary

Feature image, top of page:  Dr. Murray and his Oxford University editorial team, 1915.  H/T allthatsinteresting.com

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