The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.
"One in a hundred people today suffer from schizophrenia: Nearly all of them, if treated with compassion and good chemistry, can have some kind of dignified life, of a kind that was denied, for much of his time, to Doctor Minor. Except, of course, that Minor had his dictionary work. And there is a cruel irony in this—that if he had been so treated, he might never have felt impelled to work on it as he did. By offering him mood-altering sedatives, as they would have done in Edwardian times, or treating him as today with such antipsychotic drugs as quetiapine or risperidone, many of his symptoms of madness might have gone away—but he might well have felt disinclined or unable to perform his work for Doctor Murray. In a sense doing all those dictionary slips was his medication; in a way they became his therapy. The routine of his quiet and cellbound intellectual stimulus, month upon month, year upon year, appears to have provided him with at least a measure of release from his paranoia. [...] One must feel a sense of strange gratitude, then, that his treatment was never good enough to divert him from his work. The agonies that he must have suffered in those terrible asylum nights have granted us all a benefit, for all time. He was mad, and for that, we have reason to be glad."
That quote alone earned the book an extra half star.
That said, for anyone who does not already know the stories that are intertwined with the collaboration and creation of the largest, most authoritative, and first complete collection of English words (and who has any interest in lexicography at all) will find this a very interesting read.
In the late 19th century, there was a push to create a wondrous new reference book: a complete historical dictionary of the English language. It would use written works as its basis for both spelling and usage. This “New English Dictionary” was a gargantuan task. After a few fits and starts with different editors, James Murray became the project’s caretaker and secured the Oxford University Press as its publisher in 1878. He put out a call to readers and amateur word sleuths across the country to send in interesting, different, and obscure usages of words and their sources. In just four years’ time, he had 3.5 million quotation slips.
Minor, sitting alone at Broadmoor, came upon the public appeal through the booksellers he regularly ordered from and began to catalog everything he could find. He kept a dutiful organization system, sending in thousands of quotations over the course of his life. Minor and Murray met in person only once, and there are no notes from that day, but the work each did for the preservation of language cannot be dismissed. With Minor’s help (and the help of many others), the dictionary was issued in full in 1928.
This is one of my favorite books ever. It would be on my Desert Island Top Ten list. Sure, Winchester is a little stingy with the footnotes and there’s no index, but that’s not his style. He’s out to prove that history is replete with interesting tales of people who contributed to society in major and unusual ways. Minor eventually deteriorated mentally and physically, but his work is worthy of celebration. His indefatigable efforts helped make the OED into a powerhouse in the dictionary community. Winchester’s prose is breezy and charming. There are probably only a few people in the world who can make lexicography exciting, and he’s one of them. If you get a chance, check this one out. You won’t regret it.
"I am nobody, treat me as a solar myth, or an echo, or an irrational quantity, or ignore me altogether". Throughout the book, it is clear we can not ignore a man like James Murray. He left school at the age of fourteen, became self taught through numerous books, tried to teach Latin to cows, he was fluent in several languages including many dead languages, he taught himself geology, biology, entomology, and because of his love for words among being a very learned man, was instrumental in creating the greatest dictionary of our time.
William Chester Minor was also a genius but was also insane. Throughout the book, we get to see a background of his life growing up, what he saw as a doctor in the Civil War during a battle called "The Wilderness". Perhaps this is what threw him over the edge into insanity, although I would guess that it was a perfect storm of circumstances throughout his life that drove him over the edge into insanity, perhaps it was in his mind all along.
What I found fascinating about this book was the history of the dictionaries before the OED. I have learned so many things in this book of 242 pages that seemed more like an 800 page book. The Irish who fought in the Civil War (I have a new appreciation for the Irish and a better understanding of why so many deserted), Sri Lanka, the history of the dictionary, lexicography, branding in the civil war...the list goes on and on.
It is a book I can only read once, however it is a book that I own so I can go back to it for reference from time to time. I am in awe of the men and women who volunteered their time, James Murray, William Minor and the men who came before them who were the stepping stones before the OED. The OED took seventy years to complete! For those that love words, love history, love the OED, this book is for you!
Winchester takes the story of two very different men, an American physician, Dr. W.C. Minor, and an English lexicologist, Dr. John Murray, and shows how their lives became interwoven through the writing of the Oxford English dictionary, the most comprehensive effort ever made to define the words that make up the English language.
Murray spent nearly a lifetime developing the dictionary and Minor was a prolific volunteer contributor to it, sending in thousands of suggestions. Winchester tells the separate parts of their early lives, the intersection of what, in its own way, became their life’s work, and the development of their friendship, something that didn’t occur until nearly twenty years of their working together, albeit separated by Minor’s confinement to what would be called a mental health facility today. Minor’s hospitalization was something that Murray was unaware of for many years, and that is just one of many surprising twists that true life took in the lives of these men.
Winchester tells this most unlikely story well, including not just the success of the dictionary itself, but also the role that personal tragedy played in it. Reading it whets my appetite to learn more about the Oxford English dictionary itself.
The OED is undeniably a tremendous achievement. Winchester is clearly enamored of the dictionary; he states unequivocally that the OED is the most important dictionary in human history. He makes little of the various criticisms that have been waged against the dictionary: its orientation towards white, middle class language conventions, its imperialist outlook. Winchester has other interests, and cannot be criticized for that. Still, his dismissal of these criticisms is so absolute that it does make one wonder. Overall, this is a compelling story, enjoyably told.
However, one individual, Dr. William Minor, an American army surgeon, was so fascinated with the project that he stuck with it for 20+ years. Little was known about the man that contributed so much that Dr. Murray decided to meet him at his current address at Broadmoor Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane in northern England. Assuming that he was a staff physician, he was surprised to learn that the individual who had been so helpful over the years, had been incarcerated there after murdering a man when Dr. Minor was in a paranoid and delusional state.
The history behind the creation of the OED and the friendship between Drs. Murray and Minor was so engaging that the nonfiction account read more like a novel and less like a history textbook. If you are a bibliophile or a etymologist, you will enjoy reading this book by Simon Winchester, a prolific and talented writer of several historical events.
There are two main characters in the book. One was wealthy, one poor, one Yale educated and one self educated. Yet they collaborated on the Oxford English Dictionary without knowing their backgrounds were so diverse and their mental states so different. It was a “marriage” of the minds of two men, James Murray and William Minor who were polar opposites. One was locked away from the world in a lunatic asylum and one preferred to be locked away from the world of publicity, maintaining a low public profile as much as possible. One achieved infamy and one success.
Two stranger people could not be found, working together toward so majestic a goal. William Minor, a physician, from a well known wealthy American family, was a normal young man for many years. He fought for his country during the Civil War worked his way through the ranks to become captain but then found his way to England and was later confined to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum
James Murray was a self-educated lover of learning and literature who worked his way up the ranks of the literary world to become the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1879.
How these two men work together to pursue the same objective is the theme of this brief little book of unusual historic significance. Because of the call for volunteers to study books and word lists to create a pool of words to examine and from which to choose to include in the final dictionary, the unlikely relationship was born. Some time, in the early 1880’s, Minor became aware of the call for volunteers to work on the dictionary and he offered his services. He was highly qualified and well educated, though delusional as well, but this fact did not become known to Murray for several years and did not influence him to stop the relationship between Minor and the production of the dictionary. Actually, after a visit to the asylum, by Murray, a friendship developed.
At times the book is dry and tedious but the historic impact of the project was and still is today, monumental. How sad that the Oxford English Dictionary will no longer be published in hard cover. It is a piece of history being allowed to wither and die with the advent of technology.
It is hard to imagine a world without a proper dictionary, but indeed, that is what the world was until the mid 1800’s. There was no proper place to go to look up most words or to find their derivations. In the future, once again, there will be no hard copy available for the masses but there will be an electronic version. I suppose it will be more cost effective, more environmentally friendly and more accessible but for me, something will be missing when the actual pages disappear.
In the end though, I enjoyed learning about the OED.
Turned out he found it at a garage sale. He paid $50 for all but one volume. I think ph-po was missing from the set. I couldn’t believe it. The OED––for 50 bucks. I was jealous. Intensely so. Not of his tee-shirts, which looked like they came from the same garage sale, but of his good fortune. Throughout graduate school, I dreamed he’d grow tired of possessing it and out of the goodness of his heart, bestow it to me. Never happened.
Ever since, I’ve wanted to own the OED. I even went so far as to price the full volume, full-sized set. When the Barnes & Noble employee gave me the price over the phone, she gasped and declared that a decimal place must have been off (it wasn’t). Yes, it is the price of 2400 packages of Ramen Noodles. In addition to the issue of an exorbitant price tag for the full volume set, there was (and is) the issue of storage space. Thirty hardbound volumes would have required not only another bookcase in my apartment, but also another wall space in the apartment that didn’t (and still doesn’t) exist.
Two summers ago my fascination with the OED increased when I spied a paperback at a bookstore titled, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. I thought, Murder? Insanity? and the Dictionary? The back cover blurb read,
"The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary––and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W.C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand."
One man submitted more than ten thousand definitions to the dictionary. Imagine ten thousand dictionary definitions. Imagine ten thousand of anything. If writing a ten thousand word prose piece is an achievement, then what is writing ten thousand––more than ten thousand––dictionary definitions? That’s some serious serious etymologizing. I was astounded. When I read the next sentence in the back cover blurb, “When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane,” I was hooked.
Of course I bought it. Bookstore managers clap their hands with joy when they see a customer like me walk through the door. At $13.00 plus tax, I figured even if I couldn’t purchase The Book, I could at least own a book about its history. And for any bibliophile, the book is a delightful read, full of anecdotes and facts such as, “the total length of type [for the first edition]––all hand-set. . .is 178 miles, the distance between London and the outskirts of Manchester,” which roughly corresponds to the distance between Bloomington-Normal and St.Louis. Winchester’s book also includes excerpts of Murray and Minor’s letters and quotes from the 19th century tabloids (about the murder, the murderer, the ‘call for words’). Readers also learn bhang, brick-tea, brinjal, catamaran, cholera, delicately, directly, dirt, disquiet, drink, duty, and dye were among Dr. W.C. Minor’s favorite words.
It was then I became certain that someday I must figure out a way to purchase that OED. Perhaps eat 2400 packages of. . . and 2000 cans of . . . I could perhaps swing an egg for breakfast. . .
In the midst of all those calculations (and I’m still calculating), I discovered a few years ago that Milner Library had subscribed to the online version of the OED. That treasure trove of histories and meanings of even the most obscure of words (such as frisson) was available to me––for the best price around: $0.00! Reading the format––digitalized text streaming through fiber optic cables and readable through a GUI––is different than perusing the onionskin pages of a leather bound book. And I can’t cart my Mac around the apartment, never mind out to the mailbox nor to the convenience store around the corner, but the purpose is the same: an etymological encounter.
This book is more about the history of the project and the key men involved that gave the dictionary life. Dr Murray was our Oxford professor and Dr. Minor was of course the Madman. In understanding the creation of the dictionary it is important to know the men behind the project. Dr. Minor was an American who served during the Civil War as a Army surgeon. After the war the doctor found himself in London trying to find his sanity. All was going well until one night when he murdered a man in cold blood. He was tried and found insane, he was sentenced to Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum until the monarchs "Pleasure Be Known" whenever that may be.
There is one scene that will leave the reader a little squeamish but overall a fascinating read.
While, as a revelation, this fact may be less than earth-shattering, Winchester uses this story of the inmate, Dr. W.C. Minor, the man he killed, George Merrett, and the main editor of the OED, Dr. James Murray, as a vehicle for all kinds of interesting details – he goes on quite a number of tangents, but they're always immensely well-written and fascinating! Winchester isn't afraid to stray from dry, historical writing – he definitely makes guesses, fleshes things out for colorful effect – but his research is also obviously thoroughly done, and he also stops short of fictifying (ok, that's not a word, but I think it should be) his topic – it's always made clear when his scenarios are theoretical.
I'd highly recommend this book not only for those interested in dictionaries and lexicography, but for anyone interested in Victorian England, the Civil War, treatment of the mentally ill, or any of a number of other topics.