Friday, February 16, 2007

The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester,originally published in 1998 by Harper Collins, is exactly what it's title implies. It is the story, in part, of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The dictionary itself took 70 years to compile and hundreds of people helped with this undertaking. During this time one of it's greatest editors, Professor James Murray, was aided by Dr. W. C Minor, an American expatriate and Civil War veteran. Dr. Minor was also a certified lunatic who was committed to The Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum for murder.

While Dr. Minor's life was troubled and he was beyond a doubt insane, he also provided invaluable help in the work involved to complete the OED. He provided thousands of literary word entries and quotes to the editors all from his cell at Broadmoor. Professor Murray and Dr. Minor almost became friends, or colleagues, while working on the OED. The OED is really the main character in this book, but both Murray and Minor are treated evenly and are a compelling addition to the story. Actually, for me, what makes a story on the writing of the OED is the subplot of the professor and the madman.

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