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Main page » Non-Fiction » Science literature » Literature Studies » The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the English Dictionary

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the English Dictionary


When the editors of the English Dictionary put out a call during the late 19th century pleading for "men of letters" to provide help with their mammoth undertaking, hundreds of responses came forth. Some helpers, like Dr. W.C. Minor, provided literally thousands of entries to the editors. But Minor, an American expatriate in England and a Civil War veteran, was actually a certified lunatic who turned in his dictionary entries from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Simon Winchester has produced a mesmerizing coda to the deeply troubled Minor's life, a life that in one sense began with the senseless murder of an innocent British brewery worker that the deluded Minor believed was an assassin sent by one of his numerous "enemies."

Winchester also paints a rich portrait of the OED's leading light, Professor James Murray, who spent more than 40 years of his life on a project he would not see completed in his lifetime. Winchester traces the origins of the drive to create a "Big Dictionary" down through Murray and far back into the past; the result is a fascinating compact history of the English language (albeit admittedly more interesting to linguistics enthusiasts than historians or true crime buffs). That Murray and Minor, whose lives took such wildly disparate turns yet were united in their fierce love of language, were able to view one another as peers and foster a warm friendship is just one of the delicately turned subplots of this compelling book. --Tjames Madison --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

This stranger-than-fiction account of the relationship of two key figures behind the creation of the mamouth Oxford English Dictionary truly reads like a novel. It tells of James Murray, the young scholar to whom the job of overseeing the writing and editing of the OED fell, and Dr. William Minor, an American inmate at Broadmoor lunatic asylum, who turned out to be one of Murray's most prolific researcher-writers. The story has all the elements of a juicy Victorian novel--murder, madness, men's clubs, self-mutilation, class tensions, economic struggles, and immense undertakings that only a megalomaniac or fool would dare attempt. Winchester does a good job of describing technical information (the collection and organizing of the dictionary's definitions; evolving ways of defining and treating insanity) without being opaque or dull. At the same time he employs great compassion when telling the tragic events that enveloped the story's key characters. Winchester's story telling is never heavy-handed. I especially found it amusing thew way he peppered his account with repeated statements about how everyone involved in the creation of the OED vastly underestimated how long the project would take to complete. At one point, after working for many years and always missing the publisher's deadlines, Murray confidently claims, "I have got to the stage where I can estimate the end. In all human probability the Oxford English Dictionary will be finished on my eightieth birthday, four years from now." Winchester wryly adds, "But it was not to be. Neither was the OED to be completed in four years, nor was Sir James ever to become an octogenarian." All in all, the last volume was publishe 44 years after the project began.

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Tags: Dictionary, English, Minor, Winchester, Murray, Oxford, entries, editors