Can we agree on convergent evolution?

Evolution of Language

The Professor and the Madman” (1998), written by Simon Winchester, solidified my love of words and the evolution of language. For as long as I can remember, I have loved reading. My mother definitely instilled a love of learning and reading.  I read voraciously as a child and can recall reading “Little House in the Big Woods in one day at the age of ten – it is a 400 pages book.  As you read, you acquire language.  

Bloom’s taxonomy, the framework for K-12 teaching, indicates that the pinnacle of learning is creation.  In other words, when you really know when the knowledge is internalized, creation is possible. I have been making up my own expressions my whole life. I speak in analogies and make up words. That is how I came to be an Urban Dictionary author.  


When I tell people that my favorite book is “The Professor and the Madman” and that it’s the history of the English Oxford Dictionary, I have a pretty good idea of what people must be thinking.  (I might add that it was last book my mother ever gave me, so I’m sure there’s some nostalgia there, too).  Although it is about the dictionary, it also is about the Civil War and asylums for the criminally insane.  As it turns out, one of the dictionary’s biggest contributors was writing from an asylum.  He contributed over 10,000 words.  

James Murray is the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and Dr. W. C. Minor is considered its most prolific contributor. What Murray didn’t realize is that Dr. Minor was contributing from an asylum for the criminally insane.  Minor had lived in America. He joined the army right before Gettysburg and became unhinged at the Battle of the Wilderness.  He was plagued with delusions of militant Irishmen coming to kill him after he had been forced to brand a D (for “deserter”) on an Irishman. One night, after he returned to living in London, during one of these delusions he killed an Irishman. This event led to a life inside an asylum, where he surely read the appeals for submissions to the English Oxford Dictionary.

The Professor and the Madman” is an imaginative re-telling of these two ”inextricably and most curiously entwined” lives, framed by the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary came to be and the history of dictionary making itself (a more rambunctious profession than one would expect).

Shakespeare didn’t use a dictionary. The first English dictionaries appeared about the time of Shakespeare’s death, listed only ”hard” or ”choice” words; the earliest were arranged not alphabetically, but by subject. ‘The English language was spoken and written – but at the time of Shakespeare it was not defined, not fixed. It was like the air,  taken for granted, this  medium that enveloped and defined all Britons. But as to exactly what it was, what its components were – who knew?”

It’s ironic that the Oxford English Dictionary, now revered ”as a last bastion of cultured Englishness, a final echo of value from the greatest of all modern empires,” would demonstrate by the degree to which English is not fixed, but endlessly changing.

I noticed, year after year, that words crept into my language – wardrobe malfunction, tot mom, humblebrag, Arab Spring, 99 percenters. It was while I was reading about planking, that I discovered horsemaning. Horsemaning is the act of posing for a photograph in such a way that the subject appears to have been beheaded, their head resting on the ground or on a surface. Such photography was a fad in the 1920s.  The practice derives its name from the Headless Horseman, an evil character from Washington Irving‘s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

About a year later, during a trip to Cincinnati with my daughters, I – in a fit of almost rage – yelled at my youngest daughter to quit whisper-bitching during our trip to the American Sign Museum. A hobby was born… Just this year, I came across whisper bitching in “The Book Thief”. One of the characters had said something, and the description of they spoke was “It was a shout delivered as a whisper.”  I, alike Dr. Minor, now submit words to Urban Dictionary for publication.  

I’ll let you be the judge if I belong or not to an institution for the criminally insane…  

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