THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN by Simon Winchester

ProfessorYou might at first glance think this is a thriller about academe, but aha!  you would be wrong.  It is about the Oxford English Dictionary and the personalities involved in it’s creation.

If you are a lover of words and their etymology, or just a lover of words after they are strung together to create literature, you will certainly enjoy this beautifully written account of the conception and process of creating the world’s largest, most complete dictionary — in any language, the OED.

It took more than seventy years to produce the twelve huge volumes that made up the first edition. It was completed at last in 1928, then there were five supplements issued.  Finally, a half a century later,  a second edition that integrated the first and all the subsequent supplementary volumes into one new twenty-volume set, was issued.

The OED defines over half a million words, and contains quotations showing exactly how a word has been employed over the centuries, and when it first slipped into use.

The story stars Dr. William Minor, an American medical doctor who served in the battlefields of the Civil War.  After a time, his behavior became erratic, and eventually, he was relieved of his post, and placed in an institution.   After some time, he was released, and decided to travel overseas to England to paint and write.  He, for some reason, went first to a seedy boarding house in a very bad part of London, where his delusions returned, and he was convinced that Irishmen were after him, and coming into his room at night.   After one horrifying night, he took his gun and dashed into the streets after a nonexistent devil, saw an innocent workman on his way to work and shot him dead.  He was sentenced to the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

He was given two adjoining rooms, and because he had money, he furnished them in fine style, having one room filled with bookshelves that he then proceeded to stock with books.

Our British protagonist was Dr. James Augustus Henry Murray, who became in charge of the making of the dictionary.  The method for amassing the words was to solicit volunteer readers to read books, and collect quotations.   It was through this procedure that the working committee first came in contact with Dr. Minor, who wished to volunteer.  It was not known initially that he was a patient at Broadmoor, but it soon became apparent that Dr. Minor would become one of the most reliable and efficient contributors.  It was only later that it became known the state of his mental health and his residence.

The entire book encompasses the lifes of Minor, of Murray, a nice history of dictionary-making giving some reverent space to Dr. Samuel Johnson, creator of the first really useful dictionary in English.  The problem was that the good doctor only included words he deemed worthy, and the goal for the makes of the OED was to include EVERY word.

It was an amazing undertaking, had amazing personalities involved in it, and this is a beautiful and thoroughly readable telling of the tale.

This photo (from the OED archives) was taken on Murray's last day in his Scriptorium, 10 July 1915. Left to right, seated: Elsie M. R. Murray, James A. H. Murray, Rosfrith A. N. R. Murray; standing: A. J. Maling, F. J. Sweatman, F. A. Yockney.

This photo (from the OED archives) was taken on Murray’s last day in his Scriptorium, 10 July 1915. Left to right, seated: Elsie M. R. Murray, James A. H. Murray, Rosfrith A. N. R. Murray; standing: A. J. Maling, F. J. Sweatman, F. A. Yockney.

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4 comments on “THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN by Simon Winchester

  1. Mary Smith says:

    It sounds like a fascinating read.

  2. Great book! One of my favorites!

  3. Judith Anderson says:

    Thank you. My own OED is a more compact two volume edition, and it is just so much fun. I will certainly check out this book.

    (BA in English Literature and MA in American Literature. How could I not have my own OED.)

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