- Hardcover: 242 pages
- Publisher: HarperCollins; 1st edition (1 September 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0060175966
- ISBN-13: 978-0060175962
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.3 x 21 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 358 g
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 79,109 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary Hardcover – 26 Aug 1998
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"An extraordinary tale, and Simon Winchester could not have told it better. . . . [He] has written a splendid book."--The Economist
"Elegant and scrupulous."--David Walton, New York Times Book Review
"There is much truth to be drawn [from The Professor and the Madman] about Victorian pride, the relation between language and the world, and the fine line between sanity and madness."--Wall Street Journal
"Winchester combines a reporter's eye for detail with a historian's sense of scale. His writing is droll and eloquent."--USA Today
"One of the great strengths of this book is historical mise-en-scene, particularly for nineteenth-century America and England...[a] marvelous work of historical and philogical imagination."--Linda Bridges, National Review
"Remarkably readable, this chronicle of lexicography roams from the great dictionary itself to hidden nooks in the human psyche that sometimes house the motives for murder, the sources for sanity, and the blueprint for creativity."--Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"The Professor and the Madman...is the linguistic detective story of the decade.... Winchester does a superb job of historical research that should entice readers even more interested in deeds than words."--William Safire, New York Times Magazine
"Winchester's history of the OED is brisk and entertaining"--Mark Rozzo, Washington Post Book World
From the Back Cover
Mysterious (mistîe · ries), a. [f. L. mystérium Mysteryi + ous. Cf. F. mystérieux.]
1. Full of or fraught with mystery; wrapt in mystery; hidden from human knowledge or understanding; impossible or difficult to explain, solve, or discover; of obscure origin, nature, or purpose.
It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. 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.
The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history. With riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary.
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This book is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Have you ever thought about how difficult it would be to compile a list of words, their origins, definitions, and literary quotes to support the definition in the era before computers? I cannot believe that dictionaries were printed under those conditions! The book does a wonderful job of explaining the arduous task of making a dictionary. Numerous volunteers were recruited to find words in literature and support the definitions. The author includes a brief history of the dictionaries that came before the OED. The story really focuses on James Murray and his work organizing the dictionary. It also focuses on one of the volunteers, Dr. W. C. Minor. He was a civil war physician who witnessed terrible things and lost his mind. He murdered a man while he was in a delusional state. He was placed in Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane for a number of years and eventually transferred to St. Elizabeth’s in Washington D. C. While at Broadmoor he volunteered to his time to compile words for the dictionary and was one of the more prodigious contributors. He and Professor Murray had a long scholarly correspondence, eventually meeting at Broadmoor and becoming friends.
This is a very interesting story and certainly gives you an appreciation for dictionaries and the people who create them. I was really enjoying this book until the end. The author goes on for several pages about the injustice to the man murdered by Dr. Minor, who in effect has been lost to history. Valid point, but in my opinion the author was straying from the purpose of his book. My larger concern is with some inaccuracies about mental illness. He talks about PTSD not being recognized until the Gulf War (1990-91). However, the diagnosis was listed in the DSM in 1980. And of course “Shell Shocked” from WWI was a precursor to our current definition of PTSD. This may have been an ambiguously expressed idea rather than an actual error. I also disagree with his statement about lack of advances in medical treatment of schizophrenia and our knowledge of the etiology. Since clinical psychology is my field of study and my career some of these inaccuracies were glaring and spoiled an otherwise interesting and well-written book. This may be a small point. I do hope that these were editorial rather than research errors. For those of you who stuck with my soapbox rant, thank you for reading!
Winchester weaves together the tale of Dr. Minor and the history of dictionaries leading up to the creation of the OED. English is a language quite different than many of the other European ones in the way it has grown explosively and liberally borrowed from others, and for quite a long time there was no real attempt to catalog it: a few volumes that sought to define the most unusual words existed, but an actual dictionary of ALL the words with ALL their meanings didn't really happen until the OED. It took decades of work and thousands of volunteers to develop the dictionary, and Minor's contribution thereto was significant indeed...enough to merit a dedication in the finished product even.
Dr. Minor was seriously ill and a criminal at that, but we should know by now that these things do not per se mean that someone is incapable of being a productive member of society. That being said, there is a shock value there: we don't usually think of murderers as the kind of people who wind up knee-deep in dictionary development. Winchester chooses to emphasize Minor's humanity rather than sensationalize his crime, taking us through his life as the son of missionaries in Sri Lanka (there's an odd bit of colonialism where Winchester is weirdly attached to the British name of Ceylon) through the horrors he would have seen as a medical professional in the Civil War and his subsequent mental decline, leading down to his crime and its punishment, and then wrapping up with his long years in institutional care. Even though because of the time in history, that care consisted mostly of a relatively gentle confinement rather than actual treatment, it still should be enough to remind us that there are probably plenty of people in jail or psychiatric hospitals today who do have something to offer the world.
The book itself is solid but not really exceptional in any way. It's an interesting story and well-told, but it wasn't an especially memorable or special read. For non-fiction readers or people interested in dictionary development, it's definitely a good choice, but I don't know that I'd recommend going out of one's way to read it if this sort of thing doesn't usually do it for you.
Among the latter, the most interesting was William Minor. An American and a doctor by training, he served in the US Army during the last years of the Civil War when he went through, and participated in, some gruesome events indeed. These events may or may not have triggered his paranoia which caused him to murder an innocent laborer in London, where he moved after the war's end. Whereupon he was judged insane and committed to an asylum for life. It was from his cell, in reality two comfortable rooms, that he made a vast contribution to the Dictionary.
The weakest part of the book comes towards the end, There Winchester, speculates--speculates is the right word--about what may have caused MInor's paranoia and mental illness. Comparing the symptoms to those of PTSD, he claims that the latter was first identified during the 1991 Gulf War! A pity, for I would gladly have given his book five stars.
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