- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial (August 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 006099486X
- ISBN-13: 978-0060994860
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 872 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,164,540 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary Paperback – August, 1999
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"An extraordinary tale, and Simon Winchester could not have told it better. . . . [He] has written a splendid book." -- -- The Economist
"a fascinating, spicy, learned tale" -- -- Richard Bernstein, New York Times
"elegant and scrupulous" -- --David Walton, New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Simon Winchester is the author of The Map That Changed the World, The Professor and the Madman, and The Fracture Zone, among many other titles. He lives in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.
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Winchester weaves together the tale of Dr. Minor and the history of dictionaries leading up to the creation of the OED. English is a language quite different than many of the other European ones in the way it has grown explosively and liberally borrowed from others, and for quite a long time there was no real attempt to catalog it: a few volumes that sought to define the most unusual words existed, but an actual dictionary of ALL the words with ALL their meanings didn't really happen until the OED. It took decades of work and thousands of volunteers to develop the dictionary, and Minor's contribution thereto was significant indeed...enough to merit a dedication in the finished product even.
Dr. Minor was seriously ill and a criminal at that, but we should know by now that these things do not per se mean that someone is incapable of being a productive member of society. That being said, there is a shock value there: we don't usually think of murderers as the kind of people who wind up knee-deep in dictionary development. Winchester chooses to emphasize Minor's humanity rather than sensationalize his crime, taking us through his life as the son of missionaries in Sri Lanka (there's an odd bit of colonialism where Winchester is weirdly attached to the British name of Ceylon) through the horrors he would have seen as a medical professional in the Civil War and his subsequent mental decline, leading down to his crime and its punishment, and then wrapping up with his long years in institutional care. Even though because of the time in history, that care consisted mostly of a relatively gentle confinement rather than actual treatment, it still should be enough to remind us that there are probably plenty of people in jail or psychiatric hospitals today who do have something to offer the world.
The book itself is solid but not really exceptional in any way. It's an interesting story and well-told, but it wasn't an especially memorable or special read. For non-fiction readers or people interested in dictionary development, it's definitely a good choice, but I don't know that I'd recommend going out of one's way to read it if this sort of thing doesn't usually do it for you.
Among the latter, the most interesting was William Minor. An American and a doctor by training, he served in the US Army during the last years of the Civil War when he went through, and participated in, some gruesome events indeed. These events may or may not have triggered his paranoia which caused him to murder an innocent laborer in London, where he moved after the war's end. Whereupon he was judged insane and committed to an asylum for life. It was from his cell, in reality two comfortable rooms, that he made a vast contribution to the Dictionary.
The weakest part of the book comes towards the end, There Winchester, speculates--speculates is the right word--about what may have caused MInor's paranoia and mental illness. Comparing the symptoms to those of PTSD, he claims that the latter was first identified during the 1991 Gulf War! A pity, for I would gladly have given his book five stars.
This book is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Have you ever thought about how difficult it would be to compile a list of words, their origins, definitions, and literary quotes to support the definition in the era before computers? I cannot believe that dictionaries were printed under those conditions! The book does a wonderful job of explaining the arduous task of making a dictionary. Numerous volunteers were recruited to find words in literature and support the definitions. The author includes a brief history of the dictionaries that came before the OED. The story really focuses on James Murray and his work organizing the dictionary. It also focuses on one of the volunteers, Dr. W. C. Minor. He was a civil war physician who witnessed terrible things and lost his mind. He murdered a man while he was in a delusional state. He was placed in Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane for a number of years and eventually transferred to St. Elizabeth’s in Washington D. C. While at Broadmoor he volunteered to his time to compile words for the dictionary and was one of the more prodigious contributors. He and Professor Murray had a long scholarly correspondence, eventually meeting at Broadmoor and becoming friends.
This is a very interesting story and certainly gives you an appreciation for dictionaries and the people who create them. I was really enjoying this book until the end. The author goes on for several pages about the injustice to the man murdered by Dr. Minor, who in effect has been lost to history. Valid point, but in my opinion the author was straying from the purpose of his book. My larger concern is with some inaccuracies about mental illness. He talks about PTSD not being recognized until the Gulf War (1990-91). However, the diagnosis was listed in the DSM in 1980. And of course “Shell Shocked” from WWI was a precursor to our current definition of PTSD. This may have been an ambiguously expressed idea rather than an actual error. I also disagree with his statement about lack of advances in medical treatment of schizophrenia and our knowledge of the etiology. Since clinical psychology is my field of study and my career some of these inaccuracies were glaring and spoiled an otherwise interesting and well-written book. This may be a small point. I do hope that these were editorial rather than research errors. For those of you who stuck with my soapbox rant, thank you for reading!