THE CENTURY DICTIONARY
About the Editor Benjamin Eli Smith

Benjamin Eli Smith 1857-1913

Fascination with language is a disposition that came naturally to Benjamin Eli Smith, the Managing Editor of the first (1891) edition of the Century Dictionary, Editor of its Cyclopedia of Names, and its Atlas, and Editor-in-Chief of the revised edition of 1911. He was the posthumous son, and sixth child, of Eli Smith, a Congregational missionary born in Northford, Connecticut, noted traveler in Greece, Armenia and Palestine, and scholar of Arabic, who, besides many other linguistic studies, made an important modern translation of the Bible into Arabic, completed after his death by Cornelius Van Dyke.1

    Benjamin Smith was born in Beirut, then Syria, and brought as an infant to Amherst, Massachusetts by his mother Mehitable Simpkins Butler Smith. After high school, Smith went to Amherst College, where he was a graduate student and instructor in mathematics, before going to Göttingen, and later to Leipzig. He was an assistant in philosophy at Johns Hopkins before being invited in 1882 to join as Managing Editor the staff of The Century Dictionary and Cyclopaedia then being organized under the supervision of William Dwight Whitney.2

    As it turned out, so successful was Smith in this work that he devoted the rest of his too brief life to it. As managing editor he had direct charge of all the details of preparation, revision and publication of the dictionary, which began to appear in 1889. He also had a large share in the definitions, aided, as the biographer says, "by his wide knowledge, logical habits of thought, and command of clear, terse English."

    Smith was from the start the editor of the Century Cyclopaedia of Names, hardly rivaled since then by modern compendia of "names in geography, biography, mythology, history, ethnology, art, archaeology, fiction etc" as the title page reads. He also superintended the preparation of the Atlas, and the Supplement bringing the dictionary up-to-date in 1909. After Whitney's death in 1894, Smith was Editor-in-Chief of the new edition, that appeared in 1911.

    Benjamin Smith was married in 1883 to Cornelia Shelton, and had one daughter, Miriam, later the wife of Dr. Thomas Russell of New Haven. He lived in New Rochelle, New York, where he participated in civic affairs, mainly education, and in local literary activities. In addition to his much earlier revision (1880) of J. H. Seelye's translation of Albert Schwegler's History of Philosophy in Epitome, he wrote charming as well as learned introductions to a popular series of pocket-size volumes of Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Pascal, Lincoln, and others. He died in 1913.
 
Margaret Russell Leavy3
Stanley A. Leavy


1 An account of Eli Smith's travels in Armenia is given in "Looking for the Armenians," by Margaret R. Leavy, New Haven, Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1992. His contribution to Edward Robinson's "Biblical Researches in Palestine," (2nd ed.) London, John Murray, is amply acknowledged by the author.

2 The Dictionary of American Biography, from which much of this note has been drawn, alleges that Benjamin Smith's appointment to this prodigious task at the age of only 24 was "probably owed to his family connection with Roswell Smith of the Century Company." Unless they had some primordial Smith in common ancestry, there was no such connection.

3 Mrs. Leavy, who generously contributed this article, is the granddaughter of Benjamin Eli Smith.


 


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