Wednesday 18 October 2017

lemma, lexeme

Engrossingly, Mental Floss tells the story of the criminally insane former American civil war medical officer and surgeon who was one of the founding (and among the most prodigious) contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary, Doctor William Chester Minor.
The crowd-sourced, definitive reference book differs from other dictionaries insofar as it is a descriptive account of the language that traces the development of words (from the nonce, to slang and to jargon) and changes in meaning and nuance—rather than a prescriptive effort that informs speakers of the correct way to speak, and in order to capture a comprehensive picture of the spoken and written word, the editors enlisted thousands of volunteers to tease out shades of meaning, and confined to Broadmoor asylum, surrounded by stacks of books from all eras, Minor found new meaning for his existence and working on the project alleviated his mental condition during daylight hours—at least. A combination of a severe persecution-complex and undiagnosed nymphomania (sexually frustrated due to his upbringing by strictly religious, missionary parents) eventually led to his honourable discharge from the army, and wracked by a recurring nightmare that quickly became a consuming reality—probably also exacerbated by the horrors of the battlefield and being made to brand a defector with a “D” on his cheek with a cattle iron.
Hoping to escape his nocturnal visitations, Minor used his retirement windfall to relocate to England but to his horror, the mysterious intruder had followed him and menaced him still.  Minor acquired a pistol so as to defend himself and when the intruder presented himself next, Minor brandished the weapon and the intruder fled.  Minor pursued him outside and shot the first bystander he encountered and was thereafter institutionalised for the rest of his life.  Not to make light of mental illness and certainly working on compiling a dictionary that is a reflection of English as she is spoke throughout the ages brought the inmate moments of great lucidity as he helped give to the world a great academic resource, but I do have to wonder what it means that our etymology and shades of meaning is influenced by one so haunted by incubi or succubi.   Minor stopped contributing to the project after being one day possessed of bereaving himself of his member but even that did not cure him of his psycho-sexual burdens, but not before the publisher behind this enterprise got to meet with his chief benefactor and quickly forgot that the encounter was taking place in an insane asylum.