The Professor and the Madman

by Simon Winchester

Hardcover, 1998

Status

Available

Publication

MJF Books (1998)

Description

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.… (more)

Media reviews

Here, as so consistently throughout, Winchester finds exactly the right tool to frame the scene.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Smiler69
To tell the tale of how the first truly comprehensive dictionary of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) came into being, Simon Winchester chose to focus on one of it's most dedicated contributors, Dr. W. C. Minor, who contributed close to ten thousand definitions. What the man in charge of the committee which oversaw the compilation of the vast amount of information that went into this book, Professor James Murray, did not learn until came the time to honour the volunteers who'd helped put together this monumental work, was that Dr. Minor had been doing all his research and submitting his findings from rooms he occupied at an insane asylum. He was expected to remain there till the end of his natural life, after having been found guilty of murder and also been proved to be completely out of his mind. A fascinating story backed with great research, I'd been looking forward to reading this book for a long time, and it did not disappoint. Because I take a personal interest in matters pertaining to mental illness and it's cures, I was particularly impressed with the last chapter of the book, where Winchester talks about Dr. Minor's diagnosis, which at the time was thought to be simple paranoia but is now recognized as schizophrenia:

"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.
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LibraryThing member eleanor_eader
There's a fascinating story here, but it's a little over-told for the sake of adding drama and pathos to the history of the OED; it's a compelling enough tale without the 'omg, and THEN guess what' that the author tries -needlessly - to inject into the writing. Winchester's real strength is delivering history and biography in an accessible manner, having a keen sense for important detail and rich seems of interest; where he lets the reader down is in assuming we will not realise these things for ourselves, but must be pointed at them repeatedly.

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.
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LibraryThing member kmstock
A very interesting story about the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary. Of particular interest (in my view) was the method in which members of the public read various books and collected quotations and sent them in, so it was an example of what we now call crowd-sourcing for a very traditional application. The story focuses around a surgeon, who has various adventures and then goes insane. He is one of the biggest contributors to the dictionary. I found the story both sad and heart-warming - well worth a read.… (more)
LibraryThing member NielsenGW
One of the most productive relationships in the history of modern dictionary making began with a murder. On February 17, 1872, William Chester Minor, an ex-patriated Civil war surgeon, in a schizophrenic rage, gunned down George Merritt in London’s Lambeth slum. He was tried, found not guilty by reason of insanity, and sent to Broadmoor Asylum. It was there that he found a measure of mental solace in a most unusual endeavor. Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman details what happened next.

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.
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LibraryThing member nicolewbrown
On January 7, 1858, it was decided to undertake a grand endeavor and create the ultimate English dictionary. It would contain the earliest use of the word and several quotations of the word as it has changed in its usage over the years. They would require help from volunteers from all over the Britsh Territories and America.

One of their most prolific volunteers was Dr. W.C. Minor, an American who was retired from the military due to madness. He was treated at a hospital and released and decided to go to Europe for a restful tour. Instead, he ended up believing that people were going through his rooms. Then one night he believed someone had been through his room and rushed out to find him and shot a man he believed to be the intruder. He killed the man and was put on trial for his murder and found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to Broadmore, a hospital for the criminally insane on April 17,1872.

Since he was a model patient and had his Army retirement money coming in he was given two cells that he filled with books and had his sketchbook that he made drawings from. During the day his cell was left unlocked and he could stroll the grounds if he wished. While reading a magazine he came across an ad for a request for readers for the dictionary and he sends off a reply to offer his services.

James Murray had been involved with the dictionary project from the start but on April 26, 1878, he was made the editor and put in charge of it. The project had been lagging and Murray put some much-needed oomph in it. Murray got it back on track getting more readers. Murray stopped going to school at fourteen because his family couldn't afford to send him farther. He was a self-taught man who knew a great deal, especially about languages and words.

Murray and Minor had been corresponding for twenty years before Murray finds out about Minor's situation. What will he find when he gets there? While Minor and Murray share a love of words, they couldn't have been more different. Minor, an American, grew up in an affluent household and received a grand education, while Murray, who grew up poor in Scotland was self-taught. Minor had seen war, while Murray had not. Minor was schizophrenic while Murray was sane as can be. However, the two of them looked exactly like each other: both bald with long white beards.

This was an interesting book that explores the massive undertaking of the Oxford English Dictionary which would take seventy years to create. Minor was a major contributor to this endeavor and the first volume is dedicated to him. They are currently working on the third edition of the OED which is expected to be completed in 2037. Minor is a sad person who if he existed today could have received treatment but then would he have contributed to the OED? His work on the OED was his therapy and it worked for a good long while until it stopped working and he became beyond help. I really enjoyed this book and the look at the two men it studied who were so different yet shared the same passion. I give this book five out of five stars.
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LibraryThing member manque
So terrible I could not finish it. What a shame--although the story itself is fascinating, and of tremendous interest to me, unfortunately the way this particular author bungles the telling takes all the fun out of the discovery. In particular, the author's grating, excessively patronizing tone, together with the rather predictable plotting and almost laughably amateurish attempts at creating suspense, made this book literally unreadable (one could say unbearable) for me.… (more)
LibraryThing member allgenresbookworm
Simon Winchester is not a linear writer. Instead, he likes to weave back and forth from the main story to different background stories that do end up coming back to the main story...eventually. What I found fascinating was the background story of two men that were geniuses that come from opposite backgrounds and end up having a twenty year friendship. At times I felt bogged down and this is not a book to be read in a week end.

"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!
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LibraryThing member AMQS
This was a fun and fascinating non fiction read. The Oxford English Dictionary, or OED, was and is a massive, titanic catalog of the English language -- one reviewer said it essentially is the English language. Its creation took place long before computers, obviously, but also before real, comprehensive dictionaries. The scope of the project is breathtaking: the editors wanted an exhaustive catalog of every word ever used, no matter how obscure or obsolete. Each entry included etymological information of the word, and supporting quotations from writings that showed exact usage and varying nuance. Pronunciation was hotly debated, and concise definitions proved challenging. The editors realized this massive undertaking would require the efforts of a small army of volunteers who would read, quote, cross-index, and define any and all words they could find, ideally in a systematic way via defined historical intervals. Scores of volunteers sent in contributions, but one of the most dedicated and prolific contributors, with tens of thousands of entries, was Dr. William Minor, an American Civil War veteran long committed to the The Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. The book weaves together the story of the OED's creation with the personal histories and eventual friendship of Dr. Minor and Professor James Murray, the OED's chief editor. I only wish the book had flowed a bit better -- it jumped about a lot chronologically, and had other execution challenges, but all in all, it was a good read.… (more)
LibraryThing member ellen.w
Fascinating story, but a bit wandering, and the author's tendency to freely make stuff up (like the theory that the subject had an affair with his victim's wife, which even the author admits is based on zero evidence) left a bad taste in my mouth.
LibraryThing member 391
Winchester really has a way with words. That way, however, is dramatic. Every potential moment of drama is heightened to its fullest, to the point where I occasionally felt like the author was standing behind me NARRATING EVERYTHING WITH A BIG, BOOMING VOICE. Maybe with a flashlight to shine on his face for the creepy points. I mean, I get it, it's a book about the creation of the dictionary, it probably gets dry quickly, but there were a couple moments I had to put the book down and giggle at the absurdity of it all. I did get used to the style eventually, and found the information interesting and readable, but I still think the level of pathos present in the book is far above what it requires.… (more)
LibraryThing member bontley
Learned a lot about words. Starting with peotomy.
LibraryThing member MarkBeronte
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 began in 1857, it 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member MiaCulpa
I had read "The Meaning of Everything", Simon Winchester's recount of the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, and so I was inevitably drawn to "The Surgeon of Crowthorne". Winchester is a very good writer and makes a story that is essentially about a bloke who spends a long period in a mental hospital interesting.

Of course, no matter how intersting the read is, what stays in your memory for some time afterwards is the (spoiler alert) surgeon's self-emasculation. It was, to say the least, an eye watering moment for me.

"Surgeon of Crowthorne" may not be as enthralling as Winchester's Oxford English Dictionary book but well worth the read to see how one mentally insane gentleman helped shape the English language.
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LibraryThing member jjmachshev
The fascinating and poignant story of the Oxford English Dictionary and two similar, yet very different in circumstance, men whose lives would likely never have crossed except for their work on the OED. Although I had heard the story of the 'lunatic American doctor' who contributed reams of information for the OED, I still found myself riveted to the sad story (and occasional salacious detail in my opinion). As a word geek myself, I have a love/hate affair with dictionaries and yes, there are times when I just sit down and read a few pages. The incredible undertaking and vast scope of the project is obvious when you view the dictionary itself in its multiple-volume splendor, but I tend to forget that most Americans have likely never actually seen one in person. So of course, I found the story of the dictionary itself interesting and worthwhile reading, but combined with the inexplicable mystery of how and why the 'madman' was in a situation that enabled him to contribute so much...it just boggles the mind. "The Professor and the Madman" by Simon Winchester is well worth your time and a fun, educational read.… (more)
LibraryThing member BradKautz
What is the likelihood of any one particular person winning the lottery? Or of being struck by lightning? These are just two well-known instances of something that could possibly happen but seem so rare and unlikely that they could never have been predicated. And so also is the tale told by Simon Winchester in The Professor and the Madman (Harper Perennial, 2005).

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.
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LibraryThing member JayLivernois
A must read for all bibliophiles
LibraryThing member bragan
The story of James Murray, who was the driving force behind the truly massive undertaking that is the Oxford English Dictionary, and of W.C. Minor, an American Army doctor who was one of the dictionary's most prolific and dedicated contributors. The interesting wrinkle here is that Minor did all his dictionary work while locked up in Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane, having killed a man after confusing him with the hallucination he'd believed had just broken into his room. It's an interesting topic; the making of the dictionary is itself a truly impressive feat, and the connection with murder and madness adds an extra dollop of fascination to the whole thing. But I can't really say I'm a fan of Winchester's writing style. It's not bad, exactly, but it somehow conveys the impression that he's trying a little too hard to make what is really a rather quiet (and, in some ways, very sad) story feel dramatic and lively and exciting.… (more)
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The book was recommended to me by a bookseller, one of a rare breed today who actually reads and enjoys the books on the shelves and does not merely sell them. I always value the opinion of someone who lives for books.
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.
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LibraryThing member SheWoreRedShoes
One of my graduate school friends possessed what is known as the condensed or compact version of the OED, which is essentially the OED in miniature typeset. The condensed version text is so tiny that the OED comes with its own magnifying glass. An official attached-by-a-chain magnifying glass. At $350 for the condensed OED, I wondered how my friend managed to scrape together the money to buy one. Of course we all had student loans, part-time restaurant work, and Ramen Noodles in the cupboards.

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.

January 2000
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LibraryThing member AlexTheHunn
Winchester combines the story of the origin of the Oxford English Dictionary with an individual's tale of murder and insanity in a fascinating way. Not only does the reader gain a sense of how the dictionary was compiled - this is more or less a matter of public record - but we also are granted access into a Victorian asylum. The erudite and discerning doctor unfortunately suffered delusions and was dangerous to himself and others.… (more)
LibraryThing member melydia
One might think that the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary would be a dry read, but it most certainly is not. This is mostly due to the fact that one of the most prolific contributors turned out to be an American inmate in an asylum for the criminally insane. Seriously. True, you should have at least a passing interest in linguistics - or at least vocabulary - to get a lot out of this book, but in a lot of ways this nonfiction book reads like a novel. This is the sort of history book I enjoy. Definitely recommended for lovers of words.… (more)
LibraryThing member wildbill
I did not enjoy this as much as I thought I would. The writing did not have a good pace and it was not a page turner. The author tells the interesting story of Dr. W. C. Minor an American Civil War veteran who became a contributor to the first edition of the Oxford English dictionary. It is unusual because Dr. Minor is a resident of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Minor develops an organized system for assembling his contributions from the library he maintains in his rooms at the hospital. Professor James Murray, the dictionary's editor, visits Dr. Minor on several occasions to discuss his contributions. The story ends in tragedy as Minor's illness destroys his mind. I read Winchester's book Krakatoa and I thought that was much better.… (more)
LibraryThing member helynrob
I felt like this was sensationalized too much in parts. Granted, that's why I read the book in the first place ("What?! A madman wrote the OED?!"), but I wanted Winchester to suppose less and tell more. I think the content is rich enough in drama and information to support itself without the author dropping his oar in and imagining the feelings of those involved or how things must have smelled. Perhaps these interjections were few and far between, but for me, they were extremely noticeable and vexing.

In the end though, I enjoyed learning about the OED.
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LibraryThing member AltheaAnn
The pretext for this book is rather slight – one of the significant volunteer contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary was, although an intelligent and educated man, also an inmate of an insane asylum, confined for a murder committed while in the throes of a schizophrenic paranoid delusion.
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.
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LibraryThing member SilversReviews
This book is excellent for any word lover, but is a bit stilted and detailed.

It was very clever how the author put a page from the dictionary as the beginning of each chapter and the subject of that chapter dealt with the word. From page 220..."The total length of type--all hand-set, for the books were done by letterpress, still discernible in the delicately impressed feel of the inked-on paper--is 178 miles, the distance between London and the outskirts of Manchester."

Dr. Minor, the madman, was an interesting character and the perfect person to "write" the English Oxford Dictionary...the professor, (Professor Murray) was perfect as well. You feel sorry for Dr. Minor in his circumstances, but rejoice at what he did.

His death and burial are described as this: From Page 219..."Dr. William Minor, who was among the greatest of contributors to the finest dictionary in all the English language, died forgotten in obscurity, and is buried beside a slum."

It isn't of high interest, but keeps you reading because of the history.

I was wavering between a 2 and a 3 but am going with 3/5 rating.
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