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25 Words That Don’t Mean What They Used To

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When the English clergyman Thomas Fuller used the word unfriended in a letter dating from 1659, we can be pretty sure he wasn’t talking about his Facebook page. Instead, Fuller used the word to mean something like “estranged” or “fallen out,” a straightforward literal meaning that has long since “fallen out” of the language.

It’s to be expected that the words we use will change and develop over time as they begin to be used in original and innovative new contexts. But in some instances, these developments can lead to words gaining new meanings entirely different from their original implications—and the 25 words listed here have done just that. 

1. ALIENATE

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Alienate, like alien, is derived from the Latin word alienus, which was used to describe anything that was unfamiliar, unconnected, or foreign. And when alienate first appeared in English as a legal term in the mid-1400s, it meant to transfer ownership of some property over to someone else, so that it is now “foreign” or “unconnected” to you. It’s from here that the modern meaning of “estrangement” or “distance” eventually developed.

2. AMBIDEXTROUS

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Ambidextrous literally means “able to use both hands as well as you can use your right.” It certainly isn’t its earliest meaning, though: When it first began to be used in English in the mid-16th century, an ambidexter was someone who took bribes from both sides in a legal action, and as such ambidextrous originally meant “duplicitous” or “two-faced.”

3. BUNNY

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Bunny derives from bun—which was an old English word for a squirrel, not a rabbit.

4. CHEAP

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The use of cheap to mean “low-cost” is a relatively recent invention that dates back about 500 years. That might not sound all that recent, but compare that to the fact that the earliest record of the word cheap in any context dates from the 9th century, when it originally meant something along the lines of simply “trade” or “bargaining” or “marketplace.” Likewise, to cheapen something originally meant to ask how much it costs.

5. DUMP

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Nowadays when we say we’re “down in the dumps,” we mean that we’re in a gloomy, low-spirited mood. But the original dump from which this derives was actually an old Tudor English word for an absent-minded daydream, or a dazed, puzzled state of mind, not a depressive one. In that sense, it probably has its roots in an earlier old Dutch word, domp, meaning “haze” or “mist.”

6. EXPLODE

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The –plode of explode is derived from the same root as applaud—it originally meant “to jeer a performer off a stage.” 

7. FANTASTIC

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The link between fantastic things and absolute fantasy was once much closer than it is today. Fantastic originally meant “existing only in the imagination,” or in other words “unreal” or “based on fantasy.” Because fantastic things like these would be so extraordinary or bizarre, eventually the word became attached more loosely to weird and fanciful, and ultimately impressive or wonderful things.

8. FASCINATED

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The root of fascinated is the Latin word fascinus, which referred to a magic charm or spell. As such, its original meaning was “bewitched” or “enchanted,” not just “interested” or “enthralled.”

9. GAMUT

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Long before we started using do-re-mi, the first and lowest note of a musical scale was called ut. And the lowest of all the uts was gamma ut (named for the Greek letter gamma), which eventually simplified to gamut. As time went by, the term gamut came to refer collectively to all the notes of a musical scale, and then to the full range of a musical instrument, from where the modern sense of “the full extent” or “scope” of something eventually derived in the mid-1700s.

10. GIRL

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Bizarrely, the word girl was originally gender neutral and could be used in same way we would use child or kid. Its meaning didn’t begin to become more specific until the 15th century, after the word boy—which originally meant “a male servant or assistant”—was adopted into English (possibly from French) and effectively stole half of the meaning of girl, leaving us with the opposite pair we have today.

11. HANDICAP

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Folk etymology claims the word handicap comes from injured soldiers returning home from war and, unable to work, being forced to beg on the streets with their caps in their hands. In fact, that’s completely untrue: Instead, handicap was originally an old form of trade or bartering, in which two trading parties would have their goods assessed by an impartial third person, who would check for any differences in value to ensure that both traded items were of equivalent price. If both traders agreed with his assessment, they would drop a small amount of cash into his unturned cap which he would get to keep as part of the deal; if they disagreed, then no trade would take place and he would get nothing. It was from this original notion of “assessing the relative value of something” that we then came to have handicap races, in which stronger participants would be deliberately impeded to ensure a fair race, in the mid 18th century, and it’s from there that the more general sense of a handicap as an impediment or hindrance eventually derived in the late 1800s.

12. HUSBAND

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A husband was originally a home-owner or a head of a household—and not necessarily a married one. At its root are words meaning “home” or “dwelling” (an etymological ancestor of house) and dweller or freeholder (an ancestor of bond). Wife, meanwhile, meant “woman” originally, a general meaning that still survives in words like housewife and midwife.

13. JARGON

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Jargon was originally a word for the chirping and chattering of birds—which is the sense by which it appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And because the noises made by birds are unintelligible to us, it eventually came to be mean “senseless, incomprehensible language.” 

14. KEEN

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Keen hasn’t always meant “willing” or “ardent”—it derives from an Old English word cene, meaning “brave,” “fierce,” or “warlike.” 

15. LIVID

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Describing something as livid originally meant that it was a grey-blue color, like the color of slate. In this sense, it originally meant “bruised” or “discoloured” when it first began to be used in English in the early 1600s, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that it came to mean “furiously angry”—in the sense of all of the color draining from someone’s face. 

16. MANAGE

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Manage derives, via Italian, from the Latin word for hand, manus, and originally meant to physically “handle” something—and in particular, to control a horse.

17. NAUGHTY

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Naughty is etymologically related to nought, and meant “to have nothing” when it first appeared in the language around 600 years ago. Soon afterward, it came to mean “to have no morals,” and, by extension, “wicked,” “depraved,” or “vicious,” before its meaning softened in the late Middle Ages. It was then that the modern meaning of “mischievous” or “disobedient” first began to appear. 

18. NERVOUS

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Nervous originally meant “sinewy” or “muscly,” or by extension “powerful” or “vigorous.” Back in the 15th century, a nervous person would be one with bulging muscles and who appeared visibly strong. Before long, however, nervous came to refer to impulses and disorders that affected the nerves, and ultimately by the 1700s, excitable or anxious feelings or people.

19. NICE

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Nice derives from a Latin word, nescius, meaning “ignorant” or “not knowing”—and that was its original meaning when it was first adopted into English from French around the turn of the 14th century. Over the years that followed, nice was knocked around the language picking up an impressively wide range of meanings along the way—including “wanton,” “ostentatious,” “punctilious,” “prim,” “hard to please,” “cultured,” “cowardly,” “lazy,” “pampered,” “shy,” “insubstantial,” and “dainty”—before it finally settled on its current meaning in the early 1700s.

20. PUNK

The Tavern Scene from Plate 3 of 'The Rake's Progress', a series of paintings by William Hogarth, circa 1735.
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No one knows where the word punk comes from, but its earliest meaning in English was as another name for a prostitute—the meaning by which it appears in Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure. Over the centuries, the word seems to have accrued a whole host of fairly unsavory connotations, until it first began to be used of a petty criminal or a criminal’s assistant sometime around 1900, and ultimately any disreputable person, an outcast, or an inexperienced person in the 1920s and '30s.

21. QUEEN

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The word queen apparently started life as a general name for a woman or a wife, before its meaning specialized to “the wife of a king” in the middle of the Old English period. It has remained unchanged ever since.

22. RIVAL

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Rival comes from the same etymological root as words like river and rivulet, and when it first appeared in English in the early 15th century was nothing more than another name for a shoreline or the riverbank. The modern sense of “competitor” or “opponent” is presumed to derive from fishermen competing over the best fishing waters—in fact, the Latin equivalent rivalis was historically used to describe someone who lived on the opposite bank of a river from you.

23. SPEECHLESS

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In Old English, speechless meant precisely that—permanently mute, or physically unable to speak. The figurative sense of “stunned into silence” emerged in the Middle English period, and is probably an invention of Geoffrey Chaucer

24. THRILL

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To thrill originally meant “to piece a hole in something”—your nostrils, etymologically, are your “nose-thrills.” The modern meaning of “excite” or “affect” is a more recent figurative development dating from the 1500s (perhaps Shakespeare’s doing) that implies that something “thrilling” has the ability to affect someone very deeply.

25. VOLATILE

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Volatile comes from the Latin verb volare, meaning “to fly” (the same root as volleyball, incidentally) and first described any creature capable of flight, in particular water birds like ducks, geese, and waders. From this original meaning came the chemical meaning of volatile—originally “liable to disperse in fumes”—in the early 15th century, which eventually gave rise to the figurative meaning of “fickle” or “changeable” in the mid-1600s.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      The Murderer Who Helped Make the Oxford English Dictionary
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      William Chester Minor opened his eyes and gazed sleepily at the figure of a man looming over the foot of his bed. The intruder, who had been hiding in Minor’s attic during daylight, had slithered from the rafters, crept into the bedroom, and now, under the dark of night, was watching Minor as he dreamed. In his hands, the faceless man held metal biscuits slathered in poison.

      The next morning, Minor woke up unscathed and found no trace of the intruder’s shenanigans. He checked his closet and crawled on his knees to look under his bed. Nobody was there. But that night, the trespasser returned. And the next night. And the next. Each night, Minor laid in his bed frozen with fright.

      By 1871, Minor needed a vacation. He left his lodgings in Connecticut and sailed for London in search of peace of mind and a good night’s sleep.

      His harassers followed.

      In fact, moving to England only placed Minor closer to his tormentors. Most, if not all, of the trespassers had been Irishmen, members of an Irish nationalist group called the Fenian Brotherhood that was not only hell-bent on ending British rule, but was equally hell-bent on exacting revenge on Minor. Minor envisioned these Irish rebels huddling under the cover of gaslit streets, whispering plans of torture and poisoning.

      On multiple occasions, Minor visited Scotland Yard to report the break-ins to the police. The detectives would politely nod and scribble something down, but when nothing changed, Minor decided to handle the problem himself: He tucked a loaded pistol, a Colt .38, under his pillow.

      On February 17, 1872, Minor woke to see the shadow of a man standing in his bedroom. This time, he did not lay still. He reached for his gun and watched the man bolt for the door. Minor threw off his blankets and sprinted outside with his weapon.

      It was about two in the morning. It was cold. The streets were slick with dew. Minor looked down the road and saw a man walking.

      Three or four gunshots broke the night’s silence. Blood pooled across the Lambeth cobblestones.

      The man whose neck gushed with blood was not Minor’s intruder. His name was George Merrett; he was a father and a husband, and he had been walking to work at the Red Lion Brewery, where he stoked coal every night. Moments after police arrived at the scene, Merrett was a corpse and William Minor a murderer.

      Minor explained to the cops that he had done nothing illegal: Somebody had broken into his room and he merely defended himself from an attack. Was that so wrong?

      He did not know that, despite his sincerely-held beliefs, there had never been any intruders. Nobody had ever broken into his rooms or hidden in his ceilings or under his bed. The Irishmen, the plots, the poison—all of it had been imagined; none of it was real. George Merrett, however, was very much real. And now very much dead.

      Seven weeks later, a court found William C. Minor, 37, not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Once a respected army surgeon who saved lives, he had suddenly been rejected as a deluded lunatic who took lives. He was sentenced to the Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Broadmoor.

      An 1867 illustration of the
      An 1867 illustration of the "Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor."
      Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

      One of England’s newest asylums, Broadmoor had already held a crew of tragically deluded criminal figures: There was Edward Oxford, who had attempted to shoot a pregnant Queen Victoria; Richard Dadd, a talented painter who had committed parricide, wanted to murder Pope Gregory XVI, and only consumed eggs and beer; and Christiana Edmunds—a.k.a. the “Chocolate Cream Killer”—a 19th century sweet-toothed spinoff of the Unabomber who, instead of packing up explosives, mailed her victims poisoned fruits and baked goods.

      For many patients, getting institutionalized at an asylum such as Broadmoor marked the end of their useful lives. But not Minor. From the solitude of his cell in Broadmoor’s Cell Block Two, he’d become the most productive and successful outside contributor to the most comprehensive reference book in the English language: The Oxford English Dictionary.

       
       

      There was a time when William C. Minor did not see phantoms lurking in his bedroom, a time when he did not soothe his paranoia with the reassurance of a loaded pistol. He had been a promising Yale-trained surgeon who loved to read, paint watercolors, and play the flute. That began to change, however, in 1864, when he visited the front lines of the American Civil War.

      The Battle of the Wilderness may not have been the most famous or decisive battle of the war, but it was one of the most haunting to witness. Soldiers did more than bleed there—they burned.

      The battle, as the name suggests, was not fought on scenic horizon-hugging farmland but in the dense, tangled undergrowth of a Virginia forest. On May 4, 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army crossed the Rapidan River near Fredericksburg and encountered Confederate troops commanded by General Robert E. Lee. The belligerents exchanged fire. Smoke rose over the tree branches as dead leaves and thick underbrush smoldered and blazed.

      A painting of the Battle of Wilderness.
      By Kurz & Allison (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

      Soldiers who survived the battle would describe the forest fire in vivid detail. “The blaze ran sparkling and crackling up the trunks of the pines, till they stood a pillar of fire from base to topmost spray,” wrote one soldier from Maine [PDF]. “Then they wavered and fell, throwing up showers of gleaming sparks, while over all hung the thick clouds of dark smoke, reddened beneath by the glare of flames.”

      “Ammunition trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration,” wrote then-Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter. “[T]he wounded roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing.”

      More than 3500 people died. Minor had experience treating soldiers, but the Battle of the Wilderness was the first time he had seen patients fresh from combat. There were 28,000 total casualties; many of them were Irish immigrants. The famous Irish Brigade, widely considered among the army’s most fearless soldiers, was a primary combatant, and it’s likely that Dr. Minor treated some of its members.

      But, as his family later insisted, it was Minor’s experience with one Irish deserter that would break his brain.

      During the Civil War, the punishment for desertion was, technically, death. But the army usually treated deserters with a lighter punishment that was both temporarily painful and permanently shameful. During the Battle of the Wilderness, that punishment was branding: The letter D was to be burned into every coward’s cheek.

      For some reason—perhaps a weird twist of wartime logic that suggested such a punishment was akin to a medical procedure—it fell to the doctor to carry out the branding. So, Minor was forced to thrust an orange-glowing branding iron into the cheek of an Irish soldier. According to court testimony, the horrific event shook Minor deeply.

      If branding a man did make Minor snap, his mental illness fomented under the guise of normalcy. For two years, the doctor continued helping patients with great success—enough, in fact, to be promoted to captain. Then, around 1866, he began showing the first signs of paranoia while working on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. After a group of crooks mugged and killed one of his fellow officers in Manhattan, Dr. Minor began carrying his military-provided handgun into the city. He also began acting on an uncontrollable urge for sex, slinking into brothels every night.

      Minor had long been plagued by “lascivious thoughts.” The son of conservative missionaries and members of the Congregationalist Church, he had long felt guilty and anxious about what was, most likely, a sex addiction. The more people he slept with in New York—and the more venereal infections he developed—the more he began to look over his shoulder.

      The army noticed. Around 1867, Dr. Minor was deliberately sent from the bordellos of New York to a remote fort in Florida. But it did not help his paranoia. It grew worse. He grew suspicious of other soldiers, and at one point, he challenged his best friend to a duel. Sunstroke made his mental state deteriorate further. In September, 1868, a doctor diagnosed him with monomania. One year later, another physician wrote, “The disturbance of the cerebral functions is ever more marked.” In 1870, the army discharged him and handed him a handsome pension.

      With that money, Minor would buy a ticket to London, pay for rent and prostitutes, and ultimately buy rare and antiquarian books that would be shipped to his cell at Broadmoor, where he would eventually take a special interest in the development of what would become the world’s leading dictionary.

       
       

      The Oxford English Dictionary is not your everyday dictionary. Unlike the official dictionary of the French language, the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française, it’s not prone to finger-wagging, stuffily dictating what is and is not acceptable language. The OED simply describes words as they exist, from street slang to labcoat jargon. If a word has made a dent somewhere in an English-speaking culture, it is included.

      Unlike your stereotypical glossary, which presents the current usage and meaning of a word, the OED tracks the word’s evolution: when it entered the language, how its spellings and pronunciations changed over time, when new shades of meaning emerged.

      Take a word as mundane as apple. The OED lists 12 main definitions, and a total of 22 different “senses” (that is, shades of meaning). It traces the meaning we all recognize—apple as in fruit—to an Early Old English book called Bald’s Leechbk, where it’s spelled æppla. But the OED also tracks definitions for apple that other dictionaries might neglect: the tree itself (first appearing in 1500), or the wood of that tree (in 1815), or a gall on the stem of an unrelated plant (in 1668), a lump in somebody’s throat (in 1895), or a baseball (in 1902), or a shade of green (in 1923), or “all right” in New Zealand (in 1943), or the pupil of your eye (in the 9th century), or as a synonym for “guy” (in 1928), or a derogatory term for a Native American who has adopted white culture (in 1970). The dictionary even shows defunct meanings (from 1577 to the early 1800s, the word apple could be applied to any "fleshy Vessel" full of seeds). It’s also been used as a verb.

      Each definition is supported with quotations, sentences from books and newspapers and magazines that show the word being used in that manner. Each definition has lists of quotations, listed in chronological order so that readers can see how that particular meaning of the word evolved.

      Simon Winchester, in his brilliant best-selling book about William Minor’s contributions to the OED, The Professor and the Madman, explains the innovation beautifully: “The OED’s guiding principle, the one that has set it apart from most other dictionaries, is its rigorous dependence on gathering quotations from published or otherwise recorded uses of English and using them to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language. The reason behind this unusual and tremendously labor-intensive style of editing and compiling was both bold and simple: By gathering and publishing selected quotations, the dictionary could demonstrate the full range of characteristics of each and every word with a very great degree of precision.”

      Scouring obscure books for quotations of every word in the English language is no easy feat. It requires the help of hundreds of volunteers. In 1858, when the project was launched, the dictionary’s editors published a general request asking for volunteers to read books and mail in sentences that illuminated the meaning of a word, any word. Subeditors would sift through these slips and do the tedious job of reviewing these quotations and, if accepted, organizing them under the appropriate definition.

      Quotation for
      A quotation slip for the word "Ahoy"

      The first attempt was a mess. Readers mailed more than two tons of suggestions, but the slips were poorly organized. (As one tale goes, all the words under the entire letter F or H were accidentally lost in Florence, Italy.) After 20 years, volunteer enthusiasm had dwindled and the project had lost momentum under the weight of its own ambitions. It wasn’t until Dr. James Murray, a philologist, took over that the modern OED began taking shape.

      Murray was in all respects a linguistic genius. He knew in varying degrees Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin, Dutch, German, Flemish and Danish; he had a grasp of Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal, Celtic, Slavonic, Russian, Persian, Achaemenid Cuneiform, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Syriac; he also knew his way around Aramaic Arabic, Coptic, and Phoenician. (Among these talents, Murray was also expert on the sheep-counting methods of Yorkshire farmers and the Wawenock Indians of Maine.)

      In 1879, Murray published a new appeal to magazines and newspapers asking the “English-Speaking and English-Reading Public” for volunteers. He laid out exactly what they needed.

      “In the Early English period up to the invention of Printing so much has been done and is doing that little outside help is needed. But few of the earliest printed books–those of Caxton and his successors–have yet been read, and any one who has the opportunity and time to read one or more of these, either in originals, or accurate reprints, will confer valuable assistance by so doing. The later sixteenth-century literature is very fairly done; yet here several books remain to be read. The seventeenth century, with so many more writers, naturally shows still more unexplored territory. The nineteenth century books, being within the reach of every one, have been read widely: but a large number remain unrepresented, not only of those published during the last ten years, while the Dictionary has been in abeyance, but also of earlier date. But it is in the eighteenth century above all that help is urgently needed.”

      In late 1879, William C. Minor, who had now been institutionalized at Broadmoor for over seven years, likely picked up his subscription of The Athenaeum Journal and read one of Murray’s requests. Minor looked around his cell. Towering to the ceiling were piles upon piles of books, obscure travel treatises published during the early 1600s such as A Relation of a Journey begun 1610 and Geographical Historie of Africa.

      He cracked open a book and began his life’s work.

       
       

      With sunlight came stability. Minor, with his long, tousled white beard, spent daylight hours reading and painting watercolors. He resembled a haggard Claude Monet impersonator. He spoke coherently and intelligently and, by all outward appearances, seemed to be in control of his thoughts and actions. He gave inmates flute lessons. He even grew remorseful for the murder he committed and apologized to George Merrett’s widow. He was at times obstinate—he once refused to step indoors during a snowstorm, barking at his attendants, “I am allowed to go out and can choose my own weather!”—but was otherwise the ideal inmate.

      But at night, he was a disaster. He felt the gaze of young boys watching him, heard their footsteps as they prepared to smother his face with chloroform. He watched helplessly as interlopers barged into his room, shoved funnels into his mouth, and poured chemicals down his throat. He complained that invaders entered with knives and unspecified instruments of torture and operated on his heart. Others forced him into sordid acts of depravity. At one point, his harassers kidnapped him and carted him all the way to Constantinople, where they publicly tried to, in Minor’s words, “make a pimp of me!”

      Minor tried to stop them. He barricaded his door with chairs and desks. He fashioned traps, tying a string to the doorknob and connecting it to a piece furniture (the logic being that if somebody cracked opened the door, the furniture would screech across the floor and act like a booby-trapped burglar alarm). He subscribed to engineering journals, possibly in hopes for better construction advice. But none of this helped his condition. One of Broadmoor’s doctors described him as “abundantly insane.”

      The one and only object that likely occupied more space in Minor’s mind than his nighttime harassers was the Oxford English Dictionary. Not only did the job of curating quotations provide him a semblance of peace, it also offered him a chance at a different kind of redemption.

      This was not, it turns out, the first time Minor had contributed to a major reference book. Back in 1861, when he was a first-year medical student at Yale, Minor had helped contribute to the Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language. Guided by Yale scholars, the book was the first major English dictionary edited by a team of trained lexicographers, and the 114,000-word edition published in 1864 would become the world’s largest mass-produced book at the time. Minor had assisted a professor of natural history, but when that professor became ill, the green medical student effectively took over. He was in way over his head. He made sloppy mistakes, prompting one critic to call Minor’s contributions “the weakest part of the book.”

      The Oxford English Dictionary was a chance to make amends, and Minor took to the task with the zeal of a man who had nothing but time.

      The editors of the dictionary had advised volunteers like Minor to focus on rare or colorful terms, eye-grabbing words like baboon or blubber or hubbub, and to ignore grammatical filler like and, of, or the. But many volunteers, eager to impress the philologists at Oxford, took the directions too far: They supplied more quotations for abstruse words such as, well, abstruse and few quotations for simple words such as, say, simple. The omissions frustrated Murray, who complained, “My editors have to search for precious hours for quotations for examples of ordinary words, which readers disregarded, thinking them not worthy of including.”

      It didn’t help that the editors could never predict what would come through the door. Each day, they had to sift through and organize hundreds, sometimes thousands, of unexpected quotations. But Minor did not mail in quotations at random. What made him so good, so prolific, was his method: Instead of copying quotations willy-nilly, he’d flip through his library and make a word list for each individual book, indexing the location of nearly every word he saw. These catalogues effectively transformed Minor into a living, breathing search engine. He simply had to reach out to the Oxford editors and ask: So, what words do you need help with?

      If the editors, for example, needed help finding quotations for the term sesquipedalia—a long word that means “very long words”—Minor could review his indexes and discover that sesquipedalia was located on page 339 of Elocution, on page 98 of Familiar Dialogues and Popular Discussions, on page 144 of Burlesque Plays and Poems, and so on. He could flip to these pages and then jot down the appropriate quotations.

      Minor's index for 1687 book The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant, which includes keywords such as acacia and dance.
      Minor's index for 1687 book The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant, which includes keywords such as acacia and dance.
      Image courtesy of Oxford University Press and Simon Winchester. Reproduced by permission of the Minor family.

      Oxford’s first request, however, was less exotic: It was art. The editors had discovered 16 meanings but were convinced more existed. When Minor searched his indexes, he found 27. The Oxford staff was overjoyed. As Winchester writes, “They knew now that down at this mysteriously anonymous address in Crowthorne, in all probability they had on tap, as it were, a supply of fully indexed words together with their association, citations, and quotations.” They made Minor the team’s go-to resource for troublesome words.

      For the rest of the 1890s, Minor would send as many as 20 quotations a day to the subeditors in Oxford. His submissions had a ridiculously high acceptance rate; so high, in fact, that in the OED’s first volume—then called A New English Dictionary, published in 1888—James Murray added a line of thanks to “Dr. W. C. Minor, Crowthorne.”

      Murray, however, had no idea about his contributor’s identity. “I never gave a thought to who Minor might be,” he said. “I thought he was either a practicing medical man of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure, or perhaps a retired medical man or surgeon who had no other work.”

      In 1891, the two exchanged personal letters and agreed to meet at Broadmoor. When Murray arrived, any surprise upon seeing his top contributor confined inside an insane asylum appears to have quickly worn off: The two sat and talked in Minor’s cell for hours.

      Murray would write, “[I] found him, as far as I could see, as sane as myself.”

       
       

      It was a cool December morning when William C. Minor cut off his penis.

      Unlike other patients at Broadmoor, Minor had been permitted to carry a pen knife in his pocket, which he had once used to cut the bound pages of his old first edition books. But it had been years since he had last put it to use, and, on a breezy day in 1902, Minor sharpened the blade, tightened a tourniquet around the base of his penis, and performed what the medical community might delicately describe as an autopeotomy.

      It took one swift motion of the wrist. With his member dismembered, Minor calmly ambled downstairs to the gate of Block 2 and hollered for an attendant. “You had better send for the Medical Officer at once!” he yelled. “I have injured myself!”

      The attendants were afraid something terrible like this could happen. Over the previous years, Minor had grown increasingly religious—a harmless development on its own—but his reawakened spirituality manifested itself in the most unfruitful ways: His insatiable sexual appetite, his shamefully libidinous past, and the sexually abusive specters that bedeviled him at nightfall had filled him with relentless guilt. “He believed there had been a complete saturation of his entire being with the lasciviousness of over 20 years, during which time he had relations with thousands of nude women, night after night…” reads Minor’s medical file. “But when he became Christianized he saw that he must sever himself from the lascivious life that he had been leading.”

      Sever indeed.

      Minor’s self-surgery did not make the nightly phantasms any less common, nor did it make his sexual urges any less intense. Before the incident, he had claimed that his visitors were forcing him to have sex with hundreds of women “from Reading to Land’s End,” and afterwards, he continued complaining of unwanted harassers. It was around this time, as Minor recuperated in the infirmary, that he stopped contributing to the Oxford English Dictionary.

      Over the following years, Minor and Murray continued corresponding and remained warm acquaintances. In 1905, while Murray was on a trip to the Cape of Good Hope, Minor sent his devoted editor money to cover expenses. Five years later, Murray returned the favor by joining an effort to return the deteriorating man back to the United States. It worked. In 1910, after more than three decades at Broadmoor, Minor was transported back to an asylum in America. When he died 10 years later, in 1920, no obituary would mention his achievements. But you didn’t have to look very far to find them: All you had to do was crack open the pages of an Oxford dictionary.

      In the preface of the fifth volume of the OED, James Murray published this word of thanks: “Second only to the contributions of Dr. Fitzedward Hall [one of the OED’s earliest major contributors], 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.”

      Elsewhere, Murray wrote: “The supreme position is … certainly held by Dr. W. C. Minor of Broadmoor, who during the past two years has sent in no less than 12,000 quots [sic] …. So enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions during the past 17 or 18 years, that we could easily illustrate the last 4 centuries from his quotations alone.”

      Indeed, it’s hard to fathom the magnitude of Minor’s contributions. He provided material for entries as obscure as dhobi and as common as dirt. Today, the OED calls itself the “definitive record of the English language,” and it defines more than 300,000 words (more than half a million if you count word combinations and derivatives). It remains the authoritative reference for courtrooms, policy-makers, and etymology-nerds alike; linguists respect it as the barometer of where the language has been and where it may be going. Much of that credit goes to Minor.

      Today, the stacks of books that he so preciously consulted are tucked away in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. At least 42 of his famed word indexes are protected inside the vaunted archives of the Oxford English Dictionary.

      The words contained within are much like the man himself.

      Minor was a surgeon, a veteran, and a murderer. He was a Yalie, a painter, and a danger to others. He was a sex addict, a reformed deist, and (most likely) a paranoid schizophrenic. The defining features of Minor’s character—what his life meant—shifted with time and could never be reduced to one single identification.

      But it’d be nice to think that one definition would be crowned at the top of the page: “Greatest outside contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.”

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