The Professor and the Madman

by Guest Blogger August 10, 2011

I am a logophile. I love words, learning new words, playing with words, using words in my work. I especially love the written word. But I am a novice when it comes to a major authority on English words, the Oxford English Dictionary. I have browsed the dictionary a few times, heard tell of how extraordinary it is, listened to news stories about additions to the OED. And then a few weeks ago, I happened to pick up a book on the making of the dictionary,The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester.  Not only has “The Professor and the Madman” given me a greater appreciation for dictionaries, which I had taken for granted, but now I am itching to get my hands on an OED to peruse this outstanding authority on the history of the English language. With my love of words in tow, what fascinated me about the story of the OED is the scope of the project, the process, and the resulting work, which many times was threatened to be abandoned. Over 70 years, 12 volumes were produced, defining 414,825 words using 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. As you may know, the OED not only defines English words but presents quotations to illustrate all of the various uses of each word as well as the history of the words. For each word, the team sought the first time a word appeared in print. The longest running editor, James Murray, oversaw the work, employing British and American volunteers to read books and mail in useful quotes, which his team then sorted through and selected. As the title suggests, The Professor and the Madman also tells the story of two men involved in the work of creating the OED. The professor, James Murray, is the longstanding OED editor. And the madman is an American surgeon and Civil War veteran, William Minor, plagued by schizophrenia (a modern diagnosis). Over the course of 40 years, Minor contributes “scores of thousands” of quotes to the dictionary, becoming a major source for the OED work. All the while, Minor is a resident of a British insane asylum, a fact that Murray comes to know many years after corresponding with Minor. Minor and Murray finally meet when Murray travels to the asylum, thinking he’ll be meeting with one of the asylum’s doctors. Despite, Minor’s condition, the men strike up a friendship and Murray travels to meet with Minor many times, providing relief from Minor’s confined life. Winchester captures the end of the meetings and Minor’s contribution to the OED, “The keys would turn, the gates would clang shut, and Minor would be left again, trapped in a world of his own making, redeemed only when, after a day or so of quiet mourning, he could take down another volume from his shelves, select a needed word and its most elegant context, pick up his pen, and dip it in the ink to write once more: ‘To Dr. Murray, Oxford.’” “The Professor and the Madman” weaves many strands of history around the making of the OED – the American Civil War, psychology, lexicography. It is a fascinating tale of the OED and two men who were instrumental in its creation, and a fascinating book for logophiles.   The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Harper Perennial, August 1999)

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