Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale Of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is generally considered a grand, eloquent authority on the English language. While many other English dictionaries have been produced, the OED still stands with monolithic sureness and for good reason. The first edition was started in 1879 and not finished until 1927. It used twelve volumes to define 414,825 words and 1,827,306 illustrative quotes from literature to demonstrate both the origin and meaning of the words. In all, the hand-set type spanned 178 miles and used 227,779,589 letters and numbers (this does not include the myriad punctuation marks). In fact, the illustrative quotes, pulled from text all the way back to Anglo-Saxon England, are what set the OED apart and made it such a Brobdingnagian task for these quotes had to be found, compiled, and organized before the definition of the word could even be contemplated.

Professor Murray
This is where the story begins. Professor James Murray, a philologist and schoolmaster was tapped in 1879 by the Philological Society and the Oxford University Press to be the editor of the OED. His role largely consisted of overseeing the organizing, compiling, and processing of the thousands of small slips of paper that contained the illustrative quotes collected by volunteer readers throughout England and America. These slips were instrumental, but replying on volunteers proved to be problematic. Thankfully, Murray and his team noticed that one reader seemed to especially skilled and helpful. When asked, Dr. W.C. Minor, quickly and happily provided quotes from and impressive range of texts to assist Murray with troublesome words. Over time, Murray came to rely on Minor, but still knew little about him and had yet to meat him, despite an address so close to London, just and hour by train. The reason for this mystery is that Dr. Minor, an American Army surgeon, was actually living in an asylum for having committed murder. This book it the tales that lead these two together and to contribute so heavily to the OED.
Dr. Minor

Winchester’s style is impressive, some parts of the story read with a taste for the dramatic, others are the straight-forward, ease of good journalism. Each shift in style perfectly suits the change in the story and it is very easy to forget the intense effort it would have taken to research these men (to get a good sense of this, read the acknowledgements). This is a fascinating look at two men, their bond over their work, and their role in the creation of the OED and I would highly recommend picking it up.

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