423: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

by Gerard


423.092: Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. 242 pp. ISBN 0-0601-7596-6.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Language
  • 420: English and Old English
  • 423: Dictionaries of Standard English
  • +092: Biography

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.