The Professor and the Madman“A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary” goes the subtitle of the book I have selected for this month. It indeed is all of that. One might argue that the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the primary tale here, but it wouldn’t have made as fascinating a read if it also didn’t include the stories of the eponymous professor and the madman, two people intimately connected with the dictionary’s development. They were Sir James Murray, the primary editor of the dictionary, and Dr. W. C. Minor, one of the most prolific and productive contributors to the dictionary for about twenty years.

Okay! Quiz time:

  1. Which dictionaries did Shakespeare refer to while writing his plays?
  2. When Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was first conceived, how much time was the first edition supposed to take?
  3. How much time did it actually take?
  4. How big was the complete first edition of the dictionary?
  5. There was one word which mistakenly went unprinted in the first edition. Which one was it?
  6. How was the enormous word-list for the dictionary compiled?

Here are the answers, some at least. Others are partial and some withheld.

  1. None. There were no English to English dictionaries in existence in Shakespeare’s time.
  2. Two years was the estimated time when one of the early attempts was made. When the real push came under Sir James Murray, the time estimated was ten years.
  3. 1879-1927, that is forty-eight years of continuous efforts. Seventy years from the time of conception and beginning of fitful activities in 1957.
  4. 20 volumes containing 414,825 words.
  5. Read to find out!
  6. Through painstaking process of volunteers and staff reading through large number of books published over centuries and making word list from each of them! Existing dictionaries were used as a starting point too, but the comprehensiveness of OED was beyond anything compiled earlier.

And did you know?

  1. The primary editor of the dictionary was a person who had to drop out of formal education at the age of fourteen because of poverty.
  2. One of the most prolific contributors was an insane man guilty of the murder of a perfectly innocent stranger.
  3. The creation of the dictionary was made possible by the unpaid labors of a large number volunteers in reading books and noting down words and their usage. Crowdsourcing isn’t as newfangled an idea as we might be led to think!

Puritans interested only in the history of the dictionary may find the pages detailing the lives of these men distracting. But it is this glimpse into the lives of people involved (admittedly only two of possibly hundreds or thousands, but two very important ones) that gives the story its charm. You also get to hear of author’s ruminations on the advancing war technologies in the Civil War era contrasted with the area of medicine that was still old-world, and ill equipped to deal with the injuries of advanced weapons. You also get to know about the limitations of the understanding of mental health issues in nineteenth century and how it has changed since then. Some of it is perhaps there to pad up the pages and may sometimes feel too pedagogic, but the story flows smoothly. The time, surroundings and even private conversations of the people from a bygone era have been recreated with such confidence that one might wonder at times if the author has taken too much of creative liberty. But there are many letters, old newspaper articles, court proceedings and detailed asylum records that the author goes by, which lend credibility to the raconteur.

A dictionary is something we take for granted in today’s world. It has evolved from the printed tome it used to be to its online avatars. And now we may not even care to go to a dictionary-specific website because a google search to define a term throws up the details right there. It is easy to forget what a humongous enterprise creation of something like a dictionary, which is to represent a language in its fullness, is. A book like this is important to remind us just how thankful we have to be even for the things that feel like they have always been there.

One important warning is warranted here. The tale of insanity has some rather unsavory and grotesque moments. So, despite a cute topic like making of the legendary Oxford English Dictionary, do not hand over the book to kids. Read yourself first to determine if they are old enough to handle it.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of theOxford 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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