Thursday, October 20, 2005


The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester, HarperCollins Publishers, 1998, 242pp.

This is the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, with emphasis on two men in particular. Dr James Murray was the editor of the dictionary, who labored for decades at the Scriptorium (the dictionary's headquarters ) at Oxford. The idea was first proposed on November 5, 1857, but it was not until 1878 that James Murray, a public school teacher and longtime member of the Philological Society was accepted at Oxford as its editor. He organized the methods of collecting the definitions and had a whole army of volunteers to help him complete the project.

Dr W C Minor was an American medical doctor and Army captain, who suffered from mental illness and finally landed in the equivalent of a mental ward in an English prison for committing murder when overcome by his madness. While thus imprisoned, he contributed massive amounts of data to the dictionary for over 20 years. In the book, Winchester covers the unusual relationship between these two men; each is a type of genius and each is mad in his own way.

I learned that I am a philologist: one who loves learning and literature and who studies literature, grammar, literary criticism and the relation of literature to history. After 25 years of intense dictionary usage to understand what I study, I saw the other side of the coin, which was people studying books to find the definitions and historical development of our language. Now that I have read this account of how the dictionary was prepared and why it is laid out as it is, the entries make much more sense to me. Each definition in the OED is followed by a quotation which is an example of the earliest use of that meaning of the word that was found in books or literature. The OED is the most complete account of the history of the English language in existence.

The Professor and the Madman is fascinating. I felt that the author spent a bit too much time speculating on the causes and nature of Dr Minor's mental aberrations, but other than that it was an eye-opening account of a monumental labor that I had previously taken for granted.

1 comment:

  1. Judy: I am left to wonder how often prison has led to great works.