The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman

A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Book - 1998
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Mysterious (mist#65533;e #65533; ries), a. [f. L. myst#65533;rium Mysteryi + ous. Cf. F. myst#65533;rieux.]
1. Full of or fraught with mystery; wrapt in mystery; hidden from human knowledge or understanding; impossible or difficult to explain, solve, or discover; of obscure origin, nature, or purpose.

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story--a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray's offer was regularly--and mysteriously--refused.

Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor--that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane--and locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history. With riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary.

Publisher: New York : HarperCollins Publishers, 1998.
ISBN: 9780060175962
0060175966
9780060994860
9780060839789
Branch Call Number: 423. 092 MUR W
Characteristics: xi, 242 p.

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darladoodles
Aug 31, 2017

As a linear thinker, I greatly appreciated the detailed process that Dr. Murray set in motion to begin the immense task of creating a proper English dictionary. This became the revered and iconic Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Attempting such a daunting task in the 19th century required many, many readers and contributors to comb all English works to help define the word accurately in all its forms while determining when it was first used as well as including sentences showing usage. Murray placed ads with booksellers and one of those ads found its way to Dr. Minor in his asylum cell. Thus a decades-long relationship was born which benefited both men as well as the dictionary project.

As many nonfiction books show us, truth can absolutely be stranger than fiction. Winchester tells us the story in such a way that we appreciate both players while understanding the circumstances they were immersed in. Recommended!

h
haminheadley
Aug 30, 2017

This may be the most singularly nerdy book group book I've read, but it's also an enjoyable one. It blends what could easily be a sensational, lurid story with an obvious, fitting love of words, blended with a dose of compassion for the plight of the insane Dr. W.C. Minor. In the age of Wikipedia and crowdsourcing, it's mind-boggling to imagine the the analogue process of putting together such an exhaustive, enduring legacy as the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. A charming bit of narrative non-fiction.

SCL_Justin Aug 05, 2017

Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman is a story about two Victorian white men who helped create the Oxford English Dictionary. One of them went mad after the American Civil War and killed a man in England, where he was sent to an asylum. The other was a philologist who had trouble getting meaningful work in his field. Together they (did not) fight crime!

Winchester tells this story very well, with many digressions into the interesting-if-you-don’t-have-to-do-it drudgework of creating a complete record of the English language. Throughout the story he mentions that there are issues to be taken with the OED, the kinds of issues of imperialism and entrenchment of power, but it’s primarily an easily readable celebration of the work these two people (among many) put into this enormous piece of literature.

One thing I didn’t appreciate was how the prologue uses a dramatic version of the first in-person meeting between the two men, but then later in the book it explains how that was americanized bull written to sell newspapers in a “too good to check” kind of era. I just felt it was disingenuous to use the story as a hook in exactly the same way. But whatever. It gave me something easy to hang the story on, and got me into it in the first place. Maybe it doesn’t matter that it’s a lie.

This story wouldn’t be remarkable at all if it was being told about Wikipedia. I tend to think of its whole community of volunteers working together on a collection of human knowledge as something new and technological in an internet-only kind of way, but that is also how the OED was built. Contributors included some experts and some random citizens (who happened to be guilty of crimes). Wikipedia just flips the expected ratios of those expected categories.

Cynthia_N Apr 28, 2017

Interesting read but not quite what I expected. The book focuses on the contributions of the "madman" which was very interesting but I would have liked more focus on the creating of the OED. Quick read.

e
Eosos
Feb 15, 2017

What a fascinating slice of history. I never really thought about how complicated it would have been to create a dictionary, or what kind of people would be involved.
While this story only delves into a very small part of the dictionaries creation, it expands upon the life and times of one of it's most prolific contributors, a clever man with some definite mental health issues.
I liked the story, found it curious but it somehow felt too easy. Maybe it's my approach to non-fiction, I like something dense and complicated, this was not. It was well written and engaging though. A must read for anyone who likes words and dictionaries.

l
lcraig368
Dec 07, 2016

Loved it! Fascinating.

ChiPubLib_Adults Oct 02, 2015

Don't miss this classic story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, featuring madness, murder and an unlikely partnership.

w
wyenotgo
Aug 21, 2015

An extraordinary book, surely an example of truth being stranger than fiction. It centers upon the peculiar but astonishingly productive collaboration between a brilliant Oxford Don and an equally brilliant but clearly deranged former American army doctor. In its day, a project aimed at creating the world's first real, complete dictionary was surely an audacious undertaking and it clearly required the dedicated labors of many people, not just the two main protagonists of Winchester's book; but surely without both of them it never could have been accomplished.
Fascinating, arcane, enlightening and thoroughly entertaining.

i
IV27HUjg
Jul 03, 2015

I read this several years ago & loved it. Now I'll listen to it for a refresher. Fascinating read.

modboi5 May 06, 2015

A compelling story and a terrific read once you get past the minutiae of word lexicography. The perfect length to cover a topic otherwise unknown and undiscussed in our English language - on both sides of the pond. Amazing analysis and thoroughly readable!

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