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Powells.com
Monday, October 1st, 2001


 

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

by Simon Winchester

A review by Dave Weich

THE BASICS: Erudite noir. "A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary," as the book's subtitle explains, The Professor and the Madman tells the true story of Dr. W.C. Minor, a convicted murderer who from his book-lined cell at Englandís Broadmoor Lunatic Criminal Asylum provided more than 10,000 definitions for the greatest reference work ever created.

IN DETAIL: In 1857, when editors began work on the OED, no thorough dictionary of the English language yet existed. Announcing the project, they described a straightforward, if Herculean task: to define every word in the language, with examples alongside that would display not only the various shades of usage but also the evolution of each wordís meaning as preserved in texts, from its entry into the language to the present day. The eventual result filled twelve volumes and took seventy years to complete; the first edition, published in 1928, contained approximately half a million words and almost two million quotations.

An American Civil War veteran who came to live in Britain shortly after the war, William Chester Minor suffered from paranoid delusions, most often at night when, with increasing regularity, he would wake to imagine an intruder in his room. One such night, he ran from his bedside into the street and shot down the innocent pedestrian whom he assumed to be his antagonist.

Settling into his life sentence at the Broadmoor asylum, Minor soon happened upon an invitation tucked inside one of the many books delivered to his cell: a letter from the editor of the much discussed dictionary. It was James Murray's call for readers, his open solicitation of volunteers ó volunteers that would be asked to find, and transcribe, a quotation to display the meaning of every word as it appeared in the texts they were assigned to read.

Minor supplied definitions and quotations via post for the next twenty years, earning the utmost respect from Murrayís committee at Oxford. None on the committee, those two decades, could have imagined that their greatest contributor composed his submissions in a barred cell, incarcerated among lunatics.

No wonder The Professor and the Madman was a bestseller. It's a feast for word-lovers, a fascinating history of the language, and a sensational expose of murder and madness all the while. Consider, for example, Winchesterís retelling of the long awaited meeting.

When finally Murray boards a train to seek out the reclusive genius and thank him for his help (the moment at which Winchesterís book opens), he knows only Minorís mailing address, "Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berks," and instructs his driver to deliver him to this perfectly ordinary address.

A grainy, mysterious darkness bathes the countryside as Murray approaches his surprising encounter. Here, as so consistently throughout, Winchester finds exactly the right tool to frame the scene: a clumsy definition on which the event hinges.

And even if someone outside did know the word asylum, the sole definition that was available at the time was quite innocent in its explanation. The meaning was to be found in Johnsonís dictionary, naturally: "A place out of which he that has fled to it, may not be taken." An asylum was to Doctor Johnson no more than a sanctuary, a refuge. William Chester Minor was quite content to be seen to write from inside such a place ó just so long as no one looked too closely for the deeper and more sinister meaning that the word was then gathering to itself in the hard times of Victorian England.


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