In The Professor and The Madman, Simon Winchester tells the story behind the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary which was first published (in part) in 1884 and has long been hailed as the standard upon which all dictionaries are measured.
Winchester’s book is two stories in one. It is about vastness of the dictionary project undertaken by Oxford Professor James Murray – when he and others set out to catalogue all the known English words of the era. But it is also the story of Yale-educated and former surgeon, William Minor.
A story about a dictionary, in and of itself, is not necessarily interesting reading unless you’re a wordsmith, but when it is coupled with Minor’s story it is quite intriguing.
The book opens at the crime scene, shortly after 2 a.m. when the father of seven with an 8th child on the way – is pursued, shot and killed by Civil War Union veteran Minor in the community of Lambeth (near London, England). The deceased, who had agreed to pick up a shift for a co-worker, was murdered on his way to work. An editorial in Lambeth’s weekly newspaper commented somewhat smugly on the 1872 crime by noting,
Happily, we in this country have no experience of the crime of ‘shooting down,’ so common in the United States.
The crime part of the story moves fairly quickly into Minor’s trial, where he is found not guilty by reason of insanity. Minor, who receives a military pension, is then given a two-room suite at an asylum and in his own disillusioned world, he comes to believe the staff are his servants.
He seems resolved to make the best of his situation.
Then the author fills us in on the problems leading to Minor’s mental breakdown. We uncover his illness mental mainly through observations written by his attendants. We come to realize that Minor is paranoid, especially at night, when he is convinced people are attacking and molesting him.
He was also terribly frightened of Irishmen, we learn, because of a War incident. As surgeon, Minor was given the gruesome task of branding a Irishman deserter during the U.S. Civil War. Minor applied a hot iron to brand the letter D in the young man’s face.
The brutality of the act plants the seeds of Minor’s mental illness.
Oxford English Dictionary
So, what does all of this have to do with the dictionary?
To construct the Oxford English Dictionary, Professor Murray sent out a request for volunteers to read books dating back to around Shakespeare’s time. These volunteers would meticulously write down words for inclusion in the dictionary as well as when the word first appeared in the English language. The volunteers would also locate quotes from original materials to provide a ‘real world’ definition of the term. The sheer volume of this labor-intensive project caused many of the volunteers quit. And, it also delayed the final product by decades — the final version was not finished until 1928.
But one man, Minor, kept submitting high quality work and pushing the project forward. In fact, the original books include dedications to Minor because of his efforts. What Murray did not know, when mentioning Minor in the dedications, was the American veteran was living in an asylum and he had killed an innocent man.
This all changes when Minor is not present at a book publishing party. Many in attendance wanted to meet him, so Murray took it upon himself to find Minor. And it is in the asylum where Murray first learns Minor is not in an esteemed position, but is instead a patient. What unfolds over time is something akin to a friendship. When Minor is eventually (after more than 40 years) returned to the United States to the custody of his brother (with the condition he be placed in an asylum), it is Murray and his wife that see him off.
Rated 4 out of 5:
Writing a book about publishing a dictionary is tough to keep entertaining. At times the book moves a little too slowly for my tastes, but the author does deliver an intriguing look at Minor’s mental issues. The author does this while also weaving in Murray’s ambitious project. The book is worth reading just to get a glimpse at how mental illness was treated in Britain at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.