The Professor and the Madman

Rating: +

Simon Winchester

The Oxford English Dictionary was the first attempt at a comprehensive listing of every word in the entire English language. After a few false starts, the project was put under the supervision of Professor James Murray. One of Murray's tasks was to not only collect a list of all of the English words, whether current or outdated, and trace their introduction into the language and varying usage over time. Murray's solution was to solicit volunteers to read books and send in lists of the unusual words, or words used in unusual ways. The most prolific volunteer was Dr. W. C. Minor, an American doctor who was sentenced to live in Broadmoor Insane Asylum, after having murdered a man he delusionally believed to be part of a massive Irish conspiracy to kill him.

Winchester's book tells the story of these two participants in the compilation of the OED, including Dr. Minor's background and the history of his paranoia. In fact, the focus of the book is Dr. Minor, and his involvement with the dictionary is praised as much for its role in tempering his psychological problems as for its intellectual contribution. Minor's psychology is relevant because his unique approach to collecting words and quotes was possible in part because of his need to be a productive member of society even though he was constrained from leaving the asylum. His intense focus led him to index the interesting words in entire books, skipping the (even more) time consuming process of copying out quotes and citations. After spending several years doing this, he was able to provide Murray with example sentences for words he was currently working on and having trouble with, thus focusing his energies on filling the holes left in the collection of volunteer submissions.

If you are looking for a book about the development of the OED, there are probably better accounts of the project's history (there are a handful referenced in this book). This book does clarify the story which has been told that Murray did not know that Minor was a resident in an insane asylum until he went to visit him; in reality, Murray was informed of Minor's past behavior and current situation by a mutual acquaintance. However, there is much in the book which is speculation. In particular, Winchester suggests at the end of the book that Minor might have had an affair with the wife of the man he killed, though he admits he has no evidence for this wild guess. The book would have been stronger if it had not closed on this note. Overall, this was an amusing book with many interesting anecdotes, and a pleasant introduction to the development of the OED. I would recommend it to anyone interested in books and words, and give it a mild '+'.


Review written April 2002.


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