The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Hidden within the rituals of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is a fascinating mystery. Professor James Murray was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was one of the most prolific contributors to the dictionary, sending thousands of neat, hand-written quotations from his h...

Title:The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Author:
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ISBN:0060839783
Edition Language:English
Number of Pages:242 pages

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary Reviews

  • Trevor

    I have been meaning to read this book for years – I couldn’t even tell you when I first saw it or heard about it and thought it would be a good idea to read. Then I saw a copy in a bookshop that was going cheap and bought it on my way to my mother’s place. I showed it to her and then lent it to her. She told me she enjoyed it – so that made me keen to read it too. That was a couple of years ago – as you see, I was in no rush. I think mum even lent it to my sister to read.

    This was a remarkable b

    I have been meaning to read this book for years – I couldn’t even tell you when I first saw it or heard about it and thought it would be a good idea to read. Then I saw a copy in a bookshop that was going cheap and bought it on my way to my mother’s place. I showed it to her and then lent it to her. She told me she enjoyed it – so that made me keen to read it too. That was a couple of years ago – as you see, I was in no rush. I think mum even lent it to my sister to read.

    This was a remarkable book. It might have been a book that didn’t quite seem to know how to end – but I even liked that about it, perhaps because I was so delighted by it that I wasn’t sure I wanted it to end.

    Winchester is a true story teller. He does explain an awful lot of what might appear to be extraneous material, but I found all of this utterly fascinating anyway, so wasn’t put off in the least. The book smashes together not just the story of a insane murderer – and so providing an interesting excuse to discuss 19th Century definitions of insanity, murder and the laws pertaining to these – but a remarkable range of other ‘events’ from that century and the early years of the next. Central to all this, of course, is also the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and the lives of two central figures in the making of the big dictionary.

    But thrown into the pot for good measure are also bits of the American Civil War, the part played by the Irish in that war, a discussion of the nature of lunatic asylums and even an incredibly sexy description of the naked, romping girls of Sri Lanka which I can only assume was paid for by the Sri Lankan Tourist Bureau:

    The story of Minor, the American who is one of the two protagonists is a terribly touching story. (There is an interesting discussion about whether there can be ‘two protagonists’ in any one story – which makes a lovely digression and segue into the preoccupation with words and their meanings, both such important themes of this book.) Minor was a man tortured by demons and caught in a nightmare where only his work in finding quotations of words to be used in the OED offered him any measure of relief.

    They say there are no atheists in fox holes – but I have found that the occurrence of the words ‘penis’, ‘penknife’ and ‘self-inflicted wound’ in a single sentence also has me turning to God and even calling out his son’s name in full.

    The tale of the Irishman branded on the face with a ‘D’ during the Civil War had much the same effect. We tend to forget how much more ‘humane’ we have become in such a short time – the American Civil War wasn’t all that long ago, but behaviours like those described here, performed against soldiers of your own side, would never be tolerated today … at least, I hope.

    I’m quite pleased with my prescience in relation to this book – pleased to have recommended it before having any idea what it would be like or what it would be about - other than the sketchiest of outlines. But prescient or not, I feel much better that I can recommend this wholeheartedly now in the certain knowledge it cannot really fail but to delight.

    If you get a chance to listen to the talking book version – read by the author – I would highly recommend that too.

  • Danae

    This is a perfect example of a book that I wish had been written by David McCullough. I gave it three stars based primarily on potential--the story itself was very interesting; the writing was more like 2 stars. I cannot believe this man has been able to make his living as a writer on two continents. His main problem was being redundant, giving the general impression that his target audience was not-too-bright fifth graders (I don't need every little coincidence and connection pointed out 5 time

    This is a perfect example of a book that I wish had been written by David McCullough. I gave it three stars based primarily on potential--the story itself was very interesting; the writing was more like 2 stars. I cannot believe this man has been able to make his living as a writer on two continents. His main problem was being redundant, giving the general impression that his target audience was not-too-bright fifth graders (I don't need every little coincidence and connection pointed out 5 times). He also seemed to forget where he was headed from time to time, and in going from storyline to storyline (you know--from the "professor" to the "madman") sometimes felt a little jumpy; like he would get going with one and then kindof say to himself, "oh, I should get back to that other thing. Here's as good a place as any..." At any rate, the actual story was quite interesting, even if the author did manage to make 230 pages seem long. I would tentatively recommend it, but remember it's not the best-written book you're going to come across.

  • Jason Koivu

    A man goes insane, shoots another man to death and then helps write one of the first complete dictionaries. What an odd way to enter the academic world!

    And believe it or not, those aren't even spoilers! Simon Winchester gives us all that right in the title of his surprisingly riveting read

    .

    The idea of reading a book on the creation of a dictionary only sounded mildly interesting. In the hands

    A man goes insane, shoots another man to death and then helps write one of the first complete dictionaries. What an odd way to enter the academic world!

    And believe it or not, those aren't even spoilers! Simon Winchester gives us all that right in the title of his surprisingly riveting read

    .

    The idea of reading a book on the creation of a dictionary only sounded mildly interesting. In the hands of the wrong writer that book might not have entertained me from start to finish the way Winchester did. Granted the story has its intriguing oddities and the occasional shocking moment, but it's Winchester's ability to dramatize this hundreds-of-years-old story that makes it seem as vivid and catchy as the headlines of the morning newspaper. He is a writer who brings legend to life.

    As exciting as I find it, this is a book about making a dictionary and that won't enthrall all readers. It gets an extra nudge up in the star department from me, because this is a book about words and I like words. If you're still reading this, I suspect you do too.

  • Kinga

    If you know me personally or almost personally, then you should be aware that I am quite mad. I have a heavy obsession with the alphabet, with inventing bizarre systems that rule just about anything in my life and catalouging things. It is quite obvious that a book about a lunatic and creating Oxford English Dictionary would be a winner with me. And it was.

    However, it wasn't perfect. Winchester performed some weird narrative experiments. For example, he started off with a really exciting scene,

    If you know me personally or almost personally, then you should be aware that I am quite mad. I have a heavy obsession with the alphabet, with inventing bizarre systems that rule just about anything in my life and catalouging things. It is quite obvious that a book about a lunatic and creating Oxford English Dictionary would be a winner with me. And it was.

    However, it wasn't perfect. Winchester performed some weird narrative experiments. For example, he started off with a really exciting scene, then er... repeated that scene word by word in the middle of the book. And then... a chapter or so later, he said it actually never happened. This is a non fiction book!!

    Also, Simon Winchester is obviously psychic because he can tell exactly what everyone was thinking and feeling ages ago. The conviction which he states it all with is imperturbable.

    It's all forgiven, though, because any book that involves someone cutting their penis off (ESPECIALLY non fiction) can't get anything less than four stars.

  • Will Byrnes

    Professor James Murray was one of the primary editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Dr Chester Minor, was one of the primary contributors to the massive project. But Murray did not know that Minor was an inmate in an insane asylum.

    - image from Andersons Bookshop

    The book tells their separate stories, how Murray rose to the prominence necessary to land this major position, how Minor emerged from a troubled, if well-to-do youth to commit a heinous and addled murder in L

    Professor James Murray was one of the primary editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Dr Chester Minor, was one of the primary contributors to the massive project. But Murray did not know that Minor was an inmate in an insane asylum.

    - image from Andersons Bookshop

    The book tells their separate stories, how Murray rose to the prominence necessary to land this major position, how Minor emerged from a troubled, if well-to-do youth to commit a heinous and addled murder in London, and then to be institutionalized for the rest of his life. The book gives a vivid picture of the times (mid to late 19th century). Winchester has a gift for bringing history to life, and surprising us.

    Published - September 28, 1008

    Review - April 28, 2017

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    Links to the author’s

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    A few other books by Simon Winchester -

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    There are plenty more Winchester books out there. I have listed only the ones I have read.

  • Stephen

    As a completely fledged

    and an ever-striving-to-be

    , I was all

    with anticipation to bury my face in this purported history of the

    (OED). Alas, despite being well-written and thoroughly researched, I’m having to

    a bit to give this a full 3 stars.

    My primary

    problem with the book’s arrangement was the dearth of page time given to what I see as the most fascinating aspect of the story…the actual nuts and bolts

    As a completely fledged

    and an ever-striving-to-be

    , I was all

    with anticipation to bury my face in this purported history of the

    (OED). Alas, despite being well-written and thoroughly researched, I’m having to

    a bit to give this a full 3 stars.

    My primary

    problem with the book’s arrangement was the dearth of page time given to what I see as the most fascinating aspect of the story…the actual nuts and bolts of putting together the OED and the history of etymological word-cataloging. Unfortunately, this element only makes up about 20% to 25% of the book with the majority devoted to the life stories of Professor James Murray, head of the OED project, and Dr. W.C. Minor, a criminally insane murderer. This was a disappointing use of subject matter allocation.

    Most of the biographical portion is devoted to Dr. Minor who, admittedly, was a fascinating character with a colorful history. The author traces the madman’s early career as an Army surgeon during the Civil War, an experience that appears to have been the genesis of his growing dementia. We are given insight into Minor’s abby normal

    and his irrational, all-consuming

    . This potent combination leads eventually to “the crime” that earned him a permanent residency at Broadmoor Hospital (aka lunatic asylum).

    As interesting as this material was, I would have much preferred a more

    segment on Minor to make room for a more expansive discussion of the “highlights” below. Granted, when Dr. Minor coolly and methodically lops off his own penis as a self-help remedy to combat the “demons” causing his bizarre sexual urges…I was glued like Elmer’s to the page. I was also wincing and reading with one hand while the other one was guarding my goodies.

    BTW...the man never even screamed while he removed his appendage. I screamed reading about it. The guy was a whole bowl of grape-nuts.

    As for Professor Murray, I found the portions dealing with him to be tedious and dry. I could have done without them completely so his appearance has been edited from this review.

    Still, there is some real gold in the book. Even with the relatively scant attention paid to the actual production of the OED, there were a handful of highlights that make this book well worth perusing.

    The history of word collection, origins and philological research into first usage was nothing short of “warm butter on hot bread” awesome and I gobbled up every second of it. Please give me a full book on this someday…squeeeeee. These discussions about the research methods and the comprehensive aspect of the undertaken begun in 1857 on the OED was mind-boggling. I also particularly enjoyed the distinctions drawn between the heterogeneous linguistic “melting pot” that is the English language and the relatively homogenous, strictly pure bred French language.

    There was one genuine “light bulb” moment of illumination discussed by the author that really left me floored with mouth agape. While giving a run down on the origin of the first dictionary, Winchester discusses the fact that Shakespeare, with his amazingly diverse vocabulary, was able to write such works with no centralized catalog of words allowing him to confirm their proper usage. This...was...

    ...to...me and was easily the most valuable insight I took away from this read.

    I live inside my dictionary (both Urban and Oxford) and my thesaurus and can't imagine the mastery of language that necessary to create works like Shakespeare’s catalog without a linguistic safety net. That revelation alone was worth the price of the book for me and further elevated my profound respect for the masterful word-smiths of antiquity.

    The discussion of the cooperative process of compiling the OED and the monumental undertaking that such creating the OED was fascinating. Tens of thousands of amateur philologists researching and sending Murray’s team slips with words and brief histories of their origin, which were then compiled and processed by the Oxford committee. This was terrific stuff.

    I would have loved much more on the 3 items above. Still, the story is well written and I think the author’s regard for the subject matter comes through in the prose. Thus, despite my tarnished expectations, I am going to give the doubt’s benefit to the book and award it 3 stars because it's one I would recommend so long as you go into it knowing that you will get heavy doses of Murray and Minor and only a light serving of etymology.

    3.0 stars. Recommended (with caveats).

  • Sean Gibson

    People tend to juxtapose the idea of reading the dictionary with other activities as a means of underscoring how incredibly uninteresting and undesirable those other activities are. For example: “I have to interact with Sean today…UGH. I’d much rather read the dictionary.”

    This is an effective comparison for good reason. Look, I love words as much as the next guy, but even I find reading the dictionary only slightly more fun than reading the phone book (“What’s a phone book?” ask all the millenni

    People tend to juxtapose the idea of reading the dictionary with other activities as a means of underscoring how incredibly uninteresting and undesirable those other activities are. For example: “I have to interact with Sean today…UGH. I’d much rather read the dictionary.”

    This is an effective comparison for good reason. Look, I love words as much as the next guy, but even I find reading the dictionary only slightly more fun than reading the phone book (“What’s a phone book?” ask all the millennials simultaneously, scratching their virtual heads).

    Consequently, it may come as a shock to hear that reading ABOUT a dictionary is quite delightful. Winchester’s chronicle of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary—or, at least, the bizarre story of Dr. William Chester Minor’s contribution to it—is a fascinating story of perseverance, mental illness, and logophilia (which is not, I assure you, a strange proclivity for fornicating with corporate logos). Say what you will about the OED (primary critiques might focus on its overwhelmingly white maleness), it’s an epic achievement in the history of language, and the fact that a not insignificant portion of its content was contributed by a mentally unstable American murderer who thought that mysterious beings snuck into his room at night to violate him and “turn him into a pimp” is one of the more delightful intriguing footnotes you’ll come across.

    In short, when Professor James Murray, the man tasked with being the architect of the OED, sent out a call for volunteers to assist the editors in compiling examples of how words were used to help contextualize definitions, it was Minor, already an inmate at an asylum after it was determined he was not mentally fit to be jailed for his crime, who stood first (or, at least, among the first rank) among equals when it came to contributing. A brilliant man with nothing but time (and blood, one might argue) on his hands, Minor diligently scoured pages and pages of texts from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries to find the supporting references that are the OED’s hallmark. That he produced such a prodigious and precise body of work while battling his own inner demons is a testament to his impressive mental faculties.

    To illustrate just how powerful those demons were, consider, for a moment—an exceedingly painful moment—that, at one point, in a desperate attempt to reconcile a burgeoning religiosity with past sexual indiscretions and ongoing sex-fueled delusions, Minor, a doctor by trade, used a penknife to CUT OFF HIS OWN PENIS. Now, look—we all have days (those of us with penises (penii?), I mean) where we’re frustrated with the little guy. I, for example, get agitated when I accidentally mix mine up with the garden hose when doing yard work (which happens more frequently than you’d think on account of similarities in length, girth, and greenness). But, still—the idea of it being severed, let alone severing it myself sans anesthesia and using a turn-of-the-century penknife…well, let’s just say that I’d rather read the dictionary.

    This is by turns fascinating, grotesque, tragic, and informative—recommended for those who like their historical monographs esoteric and bizarre.

  • Jeffrey Keeten

    I was driving into work the other day thinking about Herbert Coleridge and realized that I might possibly be the only person on the planet driving to work thinking about Her

    I was driving into work the other day thinking about Herbert Coleridge and realized that I might possibly be the only person on the planet driving to work thinking about Herbie. Of course, there are such a vast number of people on this planet that chances are someone was thinking about him. Perhaps some Coleridge scholar working on a dissertation on Herbert’s famous grandfather, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or maybe someone thinking about the beginnings of the Oxford English Dictionary. Herbert Coleridge was technically the first editor of the OED and would have done a fine job, I’m sure, if he hadn’t caught a chill and died tragically young at thirty years of age.

    The reason I was thinking about him is because Simon Winchester mentioned him, and my quick research, before leaving for work, had been unsatisfactory in discovering how exactly he was descended from Samuel. He was not the son of one of Samuel’s sons so that only left the daughter Sara. Of course, my first thought was that she must have had him out of wedlock. I must formally apologize to Mrs. Sara Coleridge for thinking such scandalous thoughts. As it turns out, she married her first cousin Henry Nelson Coleridge. Herbert was very much a legitimate child.

    Though the idea of creating a complete dictionary of the English language was proposed in 1857. It was not until 1884 that parts of it were ready for publication. It floundered for decades under the weight of its own expectations. It wasn’t until the 1870s, when James Murray was asked to helm the project, that the possibility of achieving such a feat became a real possibility.

    Murray was a precocious talent, a true scholar who was, for the most part, self-educated.

    We are living in an age of specialized knowledge, and too many people only read books or magazine articles that contribute to their specialized knowledge. Knowing something for the sake of knowing it has become such an outdated concept as to be considered odd behavior.

    Murray knew that this project was too large for the academic community to shoulder alone. He placed advertisements asking for help from the whole country. He needed readers who would notate words and the sentence they were used in. The system Murray developed to handle this influx of information is ingenious, and like most clever systems simple by design. One of the people who answered his call for help was an American surgeon named Doctor William Chester Minor.

    He became one of the largest, most consistent contributors to the OED. He had a lot of time on his hands given the fact that he was…

    Doesn’t that sound lovely. I could almost believe that Minor is sipping tea and eating cucumber sandwiches while seated at a garden table at Windsor waiting for the Queen to have a chance to see him. Unfortunately, it is just a pretty way of saying he is incarcerated in an asylum for the criminally insane.

    As you learn the details of his life he was most assuredly dangerously insane with roots for this insanity going back to the time he served in the Union army during the Civil War. The roots went deeper, in fact back into his genetic history. His family was delicate mentally. They were bright and brilliant but like many hyper intelligent people wound too tight. They felt things too intently. Two of his brothers committed suicide.

    Minor was beset by twisted, shattered dreams involving Irish people trying to kill. He was a self-reproaching masturbator who also has vivid nightmares which fueled his already prodigious self-abuse.

    His delusions wrapped in fear bled dreams into reality causing him to misinterpret events around him. This all culminated in one final act which made it readily apparent that his incarceration was the only option left for society.

    It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the Madman and the Professor, without the added distractions of Ingrid Bergman or Paul Henreid.

    Though Minor was held in Broadmoor for the criminally insane, he had money and, therefore, could enjoy more luxury than the normal inmate. In fact, he rented a second cell, and that became his sitting room and library. He paid another inmate to build him beautiful, teak bookshelves. His wealth enabled him to also buy expensive antique books from bookstores not only in England, but from America as well. Considering the circumstances, he was beyond just comfortable, and if one can ignore the bars on the windows, you might even say he was pampered. Working on the OED helped him focus his mind and probably kept him from spiralling deeper into his own misconceptions.

    The OED did not reach completion until 1928. Neither Murray nor Minor lived long enough to see the job done, but without their Herculean efforts the whole idea may have been relegated to another generation or maybe never completed at all.

    As Murray became more and more famous, he became more and more uncomfortable with the attention.

    If we are fortunate, we find a worthwhile task to do while on this planet. Murray and Minor both found that task in compiling the English language. Winchester does a wonderful job of conveying the absurdity and the wonderfulness of these two men finding so much in common, despite one existing in the hallowed halls of academia and the other existing in the bedlam of an asylum.

    I once dated a young lady who owned a two volume boxed copy of the OED, which also included a small drawer on top for the much needed magnifying glass. It was an affordable way to own the twenty volume OED. I can remember spending many afternoons randomly turning pages and reading definitions of words I’ll probably never read in a novel or ever use in a sentence.

    I was accused by a friend of dating this girl for the primary purpose of having access to her OED. I was appalled and offended by such a dastardly assertion. I was, if anything, dating her for her F. Scott Fitzgerald first edition collection. I could eventually afford an OED, but getting my hands on first edition Fitzgerald’s was looking more and more improbable. Alas, as it turns out, the woman was batshit crazy, so a merging of libraries never occurred. I do think back to those halcyon days when she had left for work, and it was just me, the OED, and the Fitzgeralds. *Sigh*

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