Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 20 September 2003

A Lexicographer writes

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My husband, when asked to buy some French beans once, came home with a tin of broad beans produced in France. So I was delighted when he got me a reprint from the Ohio State Law Journal 1964, vol. 25 no. 1, as requested, from the medical school library.

The question was the spelling of Daniel M'Naghten's name. M'Naghten killed Edward Drummond in 1843 in mistake for Sir Robert Peel. He pleaded insanity and was acquitted, and the unsatisfactory rules on madness and responsibility drawn up after inquiries by the Lord Chancellor now bear his name. But what was his name?

The OED lists McNaghten, MacNaughton, Macnaughton before adding an 'etc.' and plumping for M'Naghten. The apostrophe was in the 19th century often reversed, or at least an opening inverted comma was used. But the apostrophe stands for the c in Mc, which is regarded as Mac alphabetically by English abecedarians.

We even have a copy of the poor man's signature. Some have gone so far as to discount the reliability of a madman's evidence as to his own name. But the real problem is that the signature is dubiously legible. It seems to say McNaughten, but there is an extra squiggle before the e.

Even more annoyingly there must be a misprint in the paper by Bernard L. Diamond reproduced from the Ohio State Law Journal. He quotes a letter from Sir William Haley saying that 'M'Naughton' is how the Times spelled the name during the trial and ever since. But Sir William must have written, or meant to write, M'Naughten, for that is indeed how the paper reported the name in 1843. Sir William said that was how the prisoner signed a letter produced at the trial. The signature above, reproduced by permission of the BMJ, was, on 21 January 1843, put to a statement to the Bow Street magistrate. Is it the same one?

I should like to see more of M'Naghten's writing. It is possible that he intended no u before the g in the signature. But M'Naghten has been overtaken by history. What clinched the de facto spelling of his name was the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, 1949, chaired by Sir Ernest Gowers. However witnesses to the commission spelled it, the report normalised it to M'Naghten. That stuck. Perhaps Lord Hutton could change it.