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Murder, Terrorism and the O.E.D.

September, 2005
By John Huckans

A few years ago Simon Winchester wrote a fascinating little book called The Professor and the Madman, a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (HarperCollins, 1998) and in it he tells the story of William C. Minor, who not long after graduation from Yale’s medical school enlisted as a doctor in the Union army during the Civil War.

It was during the brutal Battle of the Wilderness that Minor learned one of his duties would be to brand deserters with the letter “D” somewhere on the face, most often on the cheek. At the time many Irishmen were being drafted soon after arriving in this country and some, not at all happy about it (i.e. “Gangs of New York”), took the first opportunity to desert. Minor was horrified by being ordered to treat his “patients” in this manner and not long after began to show signs of mental illness.

Prior to being placed on the Army Retired List because of his mental and emotional state, he was sent to the Government Hospital for the Insane (later renamed St. Elizabeth’s) in Washington, DC. After a short stint working in the family business following his discharge from the hospital, he left for England where he took up residence in Lambeth, at that time a dreary working class London slum on the south side of the Thames. By then he was showing signs of extreme paranoia, convinced that Irishmen were on his trail seeking revenge for what he had done during the Wilderness campaign and one night while out for a walk in the wee hours he was followed by a brewery worker reporting for his early morning shift. Thinking he was being tailed by an Irish assassin, Minor turned and shot him several times with his pocket pistol. In those days street shootings were so uncommon that details of the crime filled the pages of the London papers for days and weeks. In his murder trial it became obvious to the police and the courts that Minor was suffering from serious mental illness and the court’s decision was that he should be indefinitely confined to the Broadmoor Asylum for the criminally insane.

At about the same time James A. Murray, a Scottish-born scholar and president of the London Philological Society was hired to edit the “New English Dictionary” which was to be based on historical and philological principles. Most of the editorial work on the massive undertaking, which took nearly 70 years to complete, was done at the “Scriptorium” at Oxford and what finally became known as the Oxford English Dictionary, was published in parts by the Clarendon Press.

Murray advertised in newspapers asking readers and scholars to contribute to the effort by supplying quotations from literature that documented word usage as it had evolved over the centuries, and by so doing illustrate change and variety in word definition in an historical context. As a lexicographic project it was the most ambitious ever conceived up to that time and will probably never be equaled.

As it turned out, one of Murray’s most steadfast and reliable contributors for many years was Dr. Minor. How Murray ultimately learned that “W.C. Minor” was an inmate of Broadmoor and how they continued their professional relationship based on a mutual interest in philology is one of the more interesting chapters in the history of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Each chapter of Winchester’s book begins with a nearly full-blown O.E.D. definition and history of the key word most closely associated with the subject or topic that follows. A lot of water has flowed under Westminster Bridge since the Lambeth murder and the recent terrible events in London, the likes of which (except for the IRA bombings) have not been experienced in that city since the German air raids of World War II, sent me to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary for a fuller explanation of the key word that increasingly affects much of modern life.

“Terrorism (te·roriz’m). 1795. [a. F. terrorisme, f.L. terror; see -ism] A system of terror. 1. Government by intimidation; the system of the ‘Terror’ (1793-4); see prec. 2. gen. A policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; the fact of terrorizing or condition of being terrorized. 1798.” (and) among the definitions of terrorist we find “1. As a political term: a. Applied to the Jacobins and their agents and partisans in the French Revolution. b. Any one who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation; spec. applied to members of one of the extreme revolutionary societies in Russia. 1866. 2. An alarmist, a scaremonger. 1803. ‘Thousands of those Hell-hounds called Terrorists… are let loose on the people.’ – Burke.”

The older definitions seem remote, quaint, almost textbook-like when compared to the terrible events chronicled nightly on the television news. It’s one thing to read about Bakunin and the Russian anarchists in our histories—quite another to contemplate our presence in every bomb location not once but many times over the years. I don’t know if the newspapers picked up on the irony, but there’s a wonderful statue of Mohandas Gandhi in Tavistock Square, not very far from the place where the double-decked bus was destroyed and, as most bibliophiles know, Leonard and Virginia Woolf ran their Hogarth Press at number 52 Tavistock Square. And just around the corner on Woburn Place one of London’s most successful book fairs is held each month at the Royal National Hotel.

Terrorism is nothing new. When in ancient times besieging armies catapulted balls of flaming pitch over city walls, the purpose was to terrorize the populace huddled within. Until recently the means of terrorizing, maiming and killing large numbers of people (nowadays impersonal bombing of civilian populations from a safe distance or high altitude) were mostly under the control of powerful tribes, countries or empires with supra-nationalistic agendas—usually having to do with extending power and control over others while confiscating land and resources. Sometimes this is called war in the national interest and unlike the days of Alexander the Great when leaders put their own lives on the line, the promoters and architects of modern warfare are mostly careful to ensure that they and their own children are kept safely out of harms way. This tendency has been criticized by everyone from John Fogarty (Creedence Clearwater Revival) to Erasmus, who in 1508 commented “War is sweet to those who don’t know it,” and echoed a little over 400 years later by Charles Montague of the Manchester Guardian who wrote “War hath no fury like a non-combatant.”

And about war in general, Thomas Carlyle, in a less heroic mood but characteristically bombastic style admitted “Under the sky is no uglier spectacle than two men with clenched teeth, and hellfire eyes, hacking one another’s flesh; converting precious living bodies, and priceless living souls, into nameless masses of putrescence, useful only for turnip-manure.” Perhaps Martin Luther summed it up best inTable Talk: “War is the greatest plague that can afflict humanity; it destroys religion, it destroys states, it destroys families. Any scourge is preferable to it.” War and terrorism, and those who promote them, are diseased siblings.

With Pol Pot as a close runner-up, Nazi Germany certainly established itself as modern history’s worst perpetrator of state-sponsored terrorism, the details of which are common knowledge and periodically revisited on television. But there are many lesser, yet important cross-border, inter-tribal examples. As has been noted before, Mark Twain’s bitter War Prayer was written in reaction to the American war of genocide or act of state-sponsored terrorism directed against the over-ten male population of the Island of Luzon during the Philippine-American War. And in the late 1940s the terrorist activities of Menachem Begin’s “Irgun” and Yitzhak Shamir’s “Lehi” (a.k.a. the Stern Gang) contributed to the depopulation of Deir Yassin (killing of most, dispersal of the remainder) and at least 250 other Palestinian towns and villages in order to create “a land without people for a people without land.” In the former Yugoslavia, Serb, Bosnian and ethnic Albanian terrorist violence turned the Balkans into yet another killing field and the horrors of the ethnic cleansing and slaughter of nearly a million Tutsis carried out by rival Hutus in only a few months almost beggars belief. We haven’t forgotten what the old USSR, China, Iraq and others have done to their own people and now we have Darfur.

Modern technology has privatized terror, allowing sick individuals with political or religious agendas to do what empires and nation states have always done—and do it with calculated surgical precision, which is what makes it all so scary. By carrying on boutique warfare at the personal level, terrorists mistakenly assume that by making targets of innocent people, they are killing “the enemy” or supporters of an evil or unjust foreign policy. What they are really doing is the mirror image of what the present administration did when it created an expanded school and playground for terrorists by preemptively invading Iraq, instantly becoming al Qaeda’s best recruiting agent.

Terrorists, especially if they should be so imprudent as to characterize their activities as religious warfare, invite polarization and risk creating a radicalized countervailing terrorist threat that could eventually make targets of the institutions, icons and symbols of what they hold most dear. If Hamas is the child of Lehi and the Irgun, what sort of creature might al Qaeda ultimately spawn?

From what I hear and read so far, the authorities are responding to the London bombings as they would any despicable criminal act and are well into the sort of police investigation for which Scotland Yard and other British investigative agencies are famous. By enlisting the broad support of Britain’s Muslim population and by treating the perpetrators and those who assisted them as the inhuman criminals they are, there is already some evidence that the “home-grown” terrorists and their sympathizers have marginalized themselves and are on a downward spiral in terms of any potential support they thought they might have had.