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

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This book has received a lot of attention from bloggers, so I’m guessing that most of you are familiar with the title if not the book itself. As I imagine is true for many readers, the title alone was enough to draw me in. Biblio-history, madness, and murder? Yes, please!

The book opens with the tragic murder of George Merrett, a London coal shoveler with six children and one on the way who was shot in the neck by a stranger on his way to work one dark morning in the slum of Lambeth, in the year 1871. At this point, the compilation of first Oxford English Dictionary, overseen by one Professor James Murray, had been in the works for almost a quarter of a century, and was nowhere near completion. There had been precursors to the OED, but most included only “unusual” words or words particular to specific fields of occupation or knowledge. None existed that included all words found in the English language.

It is difficult to imagine a time before such a dictionary existed, when there was no way to simply look up an unfamiliar word and definitions were subject to contradictory interpretations. It is also hard to picture how monumental a task such a compilation truly was: it took years for a select group of academic and literary elite to determine how the thing should be put together, and many hundreds of volunteers who agreed to scan books for certain words and send them in with the sentence in which they were found for context. Most interesting, to me, was the way in which the OED was meant to serve as a tool of imperialism; an homage to a superior and, once assembled, more easily spreadable language.

But of course, the tension of the book occurs when James Murray, determined to meet one William C. Minor, one of the most prolific volunteer contributors to the OED, is shocked to find that he’s locked away in an asylum for the criminally insane because of paranoid delusions and the random shooting of George Merret. Minor is really a sad figure. Highly educated, a trained American doctor who fought in the Civil War (and there had his first real “breakdown”), he was lucid and rational throughout most of his days; only at night did he succumb to illusions of persecution and erotic torment. He nonetheless received a number of privileges relative to his fellow inmates, and it was interesting to see how an illness which today would probably be diagnosed as schizophrenia was treated in an age when it was not yet named and even less understood. The surprise that the OED team felt upon learning that a “crazy” person could have been so useful to their project raises questions about how we view the intellectual potential of the mentally ill, though these questions are not explicitly addressed by Winchester.

The story was fascinating, as I expected it would be. I was unhappy, though, with Winchester’s writing. It was oddly paced; quick and exciting in short bursts and then, unfortunately, dull for longer periods of time. He also relied too much on conjecture for my taste. A perfect example was his admittedly unfounded wondering about the possibility that Minor might have had an affair with Merret’s widow, who forgave him for killing her husband and visited him in the asylum every once in a while, delivering books for his daily reading and word-listing. The assertion that this could be the case felt distasteful and like it came completely out of the blue, to me. In general, there were just too many small descriptions littered throughout the text that seemed completely unknowable.

Basically, the subject was great, but I wish someone else had written this book.

Written by Emily Jane

November 16, 2011 at 5:51 am