The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester


Who would think that a book about the creation of a dictionary would be entertaining? Well, this one is!

Simon Winchester has done a great job of telling this story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, a work that took some seventy years to be completed, and, at the time this book was published, amassed 20 volumes, 22,000 pages, 500,000 words defined, and 2.4 million illustrative quotes.

“Oh, you must mean encyclopedia!”

No, I mean dictionary.

You see, the original intent of the OED, which was the first work of its kind (there were dictionaries before it, but quite incomplete in their scope), was to include every single word in the English language, all possible definitions, and illustrative quotes of the first instance that the word was used in print. Therein was the biggest challenge; finding those quotes. In order to accomplish this, the people in charge of the project enlisted the help of hundreds of volunteers, both in the UK and the U.S.

The creation of the OED began on Guy Fawkes Day in 1857, with a speech at the London Library, made by Richard Chenevix Trench. The theme of the speech was “On Some Deficiencies in Our English Language.” He described ways in which the current available dictionaries were lacking. It was in this speech that he brought forth the idea of enlisting volunteers to create this new dictionary. It would be another 22 years before this project really got going.

In 1878, James Murray was brought to Oxford, to meet with the Delegates on the project, and was put in charge of editing the dictionary.

William Minor was an American doctor who had served in the Army. The book begins with a story of him killing a man outside of his apartment in Lambeth Marsh, in Victorian London. Shortly after 2:00 AMon February 17, 1872, three gunshots rang out, something which was unheard of in London. Minor had come to England, suffering from mental illness, which, as a result of the killing of George Merrett, would land him in an asylum in England for most of the rest of his life. What it was that drove Doctor Minor insane would never quite be discovered. There was much speculation, including events that occurred during the Civil War in the U.S., where he served as a military doctor.

It was during his stay at Broadmoor that he would see a flyer advertising the need for volunteers on the OED project. His response to that advertisement would launch over 20 years of communication between William Minor and James Murray. Minor would become one of, if not the, most valuable contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The book is fascinating and entertaining. Winchester writes with a style that is captivating and gripping, and not at all boring. I don’t recall every being bored during the reading of this book. I would recommend it to anyone interested in history and language.


3 thoughts on “The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester

  1. OMG! I loved this book! I had to read it in grad school, and when my prof introduced it, I was like…. “ugh, a book about the creation of a dictionary?”

    BUT… it is one of the best books I have read, and it proudly stands on my bookshelf! πŸ™‚ Thanks for blogging about it!

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