Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester.  HarperPerennial, 1998.  242 pp.  978-0-06-083978-9.

… in which we learn about how the Oxford English Dictionary was created with the help of an Oxford professor and an inmate in an asylum for the criminally insane.

At first glance, this is simply the story of the writing of the English language’s most important reference book: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  However, in the hands of Simon Winchester, this seemingly dull story takes on a great deal of heart and life.  The OED spans twelve volumes, defines 414,825 words, and contains 178 miles of text.  As a point of comparison, the average fluent English speaker knows about 20,000 words. 
From its inception to the completion of the first edition of the OED, 70 years elapsed, and in those seven decades a group of dedicated scholars ponderously worked their way through all the words in the English language.  Their strategy was simple: read books, and write down every word they read.  Since this is obviously a gargantuan task, they enlisted the help of interested volunteers in English-speaking countries around the world.  In charge of the project was Professor James Murray, a man of humble origins who had attained his place at Oxford University through self-education (he never formally completed grammar school).  Over time, he found that over ten thousand of the OED’s definitions were submitted by a single volunteer: one Dr. William Chester Minor, who apparently lived a mere forty miles from Oxford.  Professor Murray took it upon himself to visit this prolific contributor to the dictionary, only to find that Dr. Minor was an American Civil War veteran who had murdered a man in London and was then found to be insane and was locked away for life in an insane asylum.  What followed from this shocking discovery was a friendship and an extremely productive partnership that would last for the remainder of their lives.

I can certainly understand why the history of a dictionary would not be most people’s choice of reading material.  One of the things that first drew me to this book was its author, Simon Winchester.  Winchester is a geologist by training; he graduated from Oxford University and worked in the oil industry in Africa before becoming a journalist.  I’ve read three of his other books, about the world’s first geologic map, the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa in 1883, and the deadly 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  I knew from experience that Winchester has the writing ability to bring a potentially dull and specific topic to life, making it engaging and interesting to the general reader.  For example, I find geologic maps to be endlessly entertaining, and I suspect I’m a member of a tiny subset of the population who thinks this way, but his book on the first geologic map still ended up being a critically acclaimed NYT bestseller.  So, I went into this book with high expectations, and I was not at all disappointed.

Winchester does a very nice job of weaving together multiple topics: the history of the OED itself, the personal histories of James Murray and W.C. Minor, their relationship, and finally the origins and etymology of many words in the English language.  His depiction of Dr. Minor’s circumstances is particularly well done… although Dr. Minor murdered an innocent man in cold blood, Winchester does a very good job of exploring the reasons behind Dr. Minor’s madness, and he really shows the reader that Dr. Minor was really a victim of a series of tragedies and unfortunate occurrences in his life.  

In addition to learning about the dictionary and the scholars, I also learned a fair amount about the culture in Victorian England, certain practices in the Union and Confederate Armies in the US Civil War, psychology, and the history of the English language.  Each chapter was prefaced with a different entry from the OED, giving a word, its entire etymology, all of its definitions, and multiple usages in different quotations.  So, not only is the writing in this book smooth, sophisticated and engaging, it’s also really educational.  By the end of the book I had made a list of fourteen words that I did not previously know (though three of those words turned out to be obsolete and no longer in common use).  I am eagerly anticipating the incorporation of the word “sesquipedalian” into my everyday conversations.

At less than 300 pages, this is a pretty quick read, and substantially shorter than any other book I’ve read by Simon Winchester.  It’s recommended reading for anyone with interests in linguistics, etymology, or psychology and psychiatry in Victorian England.

5/5 stars


  1. What are the other 13 words?

  2. The ones still in modern use are:
    Postlapsarian, encomium, colloquy, tocsin, brevet, japanned, demimonde, malapropism, pudicity, and amanuensis. I didn't bother writing down the ones that turned out to be obsolete words from a century ago.
    (Google's spell checker apparently doesn't recognize postlapsarian or pudicity, and neither does MS Word's spell checker, but the dictionary recognizes them).


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