Book Review: The Professor and the Madman

The Oxford English Dictionary is a masterpiece. Before you say “how could a dictionary possibly be a masterpiece? Are you daft, man?” Allow me to explain. In the first edition, there were 414,825 words defined. It took 70 years to complete. While it wasn’t the first dictionary, nor was Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous work for that matter, it was the most comprehensive English work ever created. That battle raged all the while as far as the purpose of it was concerned. One camp thought the dictionary should act as a set of rules for spelling and using the words correctly. The other took a more sociological bent: it should act simple as a recording of the words and how they evolved over time. But parties agreed it was needed. So it came to be, though it took decades longer than intended and was fraught with delays. The Professor and The Madman trace the contribution of two of the most prominent men associated with the gargantuan task: Dr. James Murray and Dr. William Minor.

Dr. Murray was the lead editor of the dictionary. He was tasked with overseeing the compilation of not just the words and their definitions but also their etymology and example quotes for each usage. He wasn’t the first person to hold this post, nor was he the last, but the work finally moved irrevocably forward under his direction. Like his predecessors, he knew his little group of editors couldn’t do it alone, so he sent out pleas for help. He wanted volunteers to read and find examples of English words. The request generated thousands of volunteers with millions of quotes. One such volunteer was Dr. Minor.

Dr. Minor was an American doctor who served in the Civil War and perhaps because of his being forced to brand an Irish deserter on the face, he soon went mad. Perhaps it was his being brought up by a sternly religious man in the hot environs of India, where native women ran around nearly naked. Or perhaps it was because of the various venereal diseases he contracted over the years. Whatever the reason, he shot a man on the street (this in a time when murder by guns was a very rare occurrence indeed) because he thought the Irish were lying in wait under his bed. Confused? Yeah, his is very disturbing mind, one that would spend more than 40 years in an insane asylum.

It was in this asylum, with very little aside from his reading to keep his mind off of his delusions, that he became an invaluable contributor to the OED cause. His note taking was meticulous, his energy for his chore nearly inexhaustible, but more importantly his collection of rare books was impressive. If Dr. Murray and company were stumped on a word, they would write to him and more oft than not, he would provide quotations for the various meanings of the word. He became such a reliable source of information that it wasn’t long before the madman had a visit by the professor. Theirs was the unlikeliest of friendships, one born out of mutual respect. So when things got worse, Dr. Murray felt the effect as not just a valued contributor but also a friend.

The madness seemed contain, harmless, as if the asylum kept it in check. Sure, the signs of it getting worse were there but the destination seemed more like to be one of sadness than one of horrific violence. The murder that resulted in his confinement was decades in the past and he’d shown no inclination towards violence since then. So when it does indeed turn violent, and brutally so, it comes as a shattering shock. I’ll not get into specifics here, it’s not for the faint of heart.

After the shock, he all but stops his contributions. Dr. Murray carries on of course and has plenty of help but it’s a turning point in the story. The book’s focus is twofold:  first, there’s the creation of the actual dictionary and second is the relationship between the professor and the madman. I think it’s fitting that such a extraordinary task is rife with extraordinary events. When the work is finally finished on New Year’s Eve 1927, it almost seems anticlimactic. The book is marvelously engaging. I recommend it highly, you should check it out, you won’t be sorry.

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2 Responses to Book Review: The Professor and the Madman

  1. linda says:

    I loved this book! I don’t read much nonfiction, but Simon Winchester has really mastered the art of narrative flow. This is a fascinating story!

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