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The Professor and the Madman – Book Review

Written by: Simon Winchester
Published by: HarperCollins

Professor James Murray was given a daunting task, to edit and compile The Oxford English Dictionary, the most complete and accurate dictionary ever. It took 70 years to complete the first edition (published in 1928); it contained 414,800 words and 1,861,200 quotations (the second edition published in 1989 contains 615,100 words and 2,436,600 quotations). While there were other dictionaries available (most notably Samuel Johnson’s famous work), the OED was unique since it not only defined words, but also traced the history of words through quotations obtained from literature and non-fiction.

Murray was helped by a Dr. William Minor, who like 2000 other volunteers, submitted appropriate quotations that showed the word’s first appearance or illustrated the word’s meaning. Dr. Minor’s quotations were plentiful and well researched. So Professor Murray figured the doctor had plenty of free time. Since Minor was committed to Broadmoor Asylum for shooting a man he believed to be an assassin, he did.

This is the odd relationship that frames The Professor and the Madman, a relationship between two very different men. Murray was a son of a tailor, a self-educated Scotsman who spoke 25 languages and was a pious Congregationalist; Minor was an aristocratic American, educated at Yale, a surgeon during the Civil War, an agnostic and libertine. But both were brought together by a love of language. Such was Murray’s regard for Minor that it took years to see that the return address on his correspondence was from an asylum, not a county house in the area. Winchester delves into the lives and motivations of these two men, especially Minor’s paranoid dementia; he also delves into the dictionary, the third member of this triangle.

[ad#longpost]Winchester shows the reader that the dictionary has been more than a utility for writers, it was used to try to contain the chaotic English language, it was used to bring fame and fortune for anyone brave enough to create the lexicon, and it was used to strengthen and extend the hold of God and Empire on the world. The OED owes its birth to many brilliant though odd people.

Winchester is primarily a travel writer, and this shows in the descriptions of the major locations in the book: Sri Lanka (Minor’s birthplace), the Scriptorium (the building in Oxford Murray worked), Virginia (where Minor saw action during the Battle for the Wilderness), and Lamberth Marsh (the seedy suburb of London where Minor committed murder). Winchester takes many tangents on many subjects throughout the book, but they never distract and he always returns to Murray and Minor. You will look at your dictionary with a new respect after reading this book. And if that doesn’t say how good this book is, nothing will.

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