Monday, January 17, 2011

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the OED / Simon Winchester -- NY: Harper Collins, 1998

The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the truly monumental literary achievements of all time. Not only did it purport to define every English word (past and present), but it provided quotes from a wide variety of sources, exemplifying the meanings of those words and tracing the changes in their meanings over time. Furthermore, we are given the etymology of each word. The final publication of the first edition was completed forty-nine years after its primary editor, James Murray, took responsibility for the effort, but those years were preceded by approximately two decades that saw preliminary work on the dictionary by others.

The first edition was completed in ten volumes in 1928, but reprinted in twelve volumes plus a supplementary volume in 1933. In the 1970s and 1980s, four more supplements were added to the work until in 1989, the second edition was published in twenty volumes. The work was the unique product of a rather post-modern project. The first editors put out a call to the English-reading public, asking for volunteers to send in quotations that included any word that was interesting or used in an unusual way. From these contributions, sub-editors would compile promising quotations for the editors to chose from to compile the final entries. The work was, in essence, a Victorian wiki, finally composed of 414,825 words and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations.

Among the most important volunteers was William Minor, an American doctor living in England. Along with Murray, Minor is the subject of Simon Winchester's book, The Professor and the Madman. Minor, the madman, was incarcerated for a murder he committed in a delusional fit. His detention began in 1872 when he was 37 years old and continued until months before the end of his life in 1920. During this time, Minor indexed the words of a huge number of books, particularly eighteenth century books, and sent quotation to Murray and his team as they compiled the dictionary. Although he did not submit the most quotations for consideration by editors, Minor's quotations were especially well chosen and timely in the publication process. As particular words were being prepared for inclusion, Murray would contact Minor for his assistance and Minor would respond by examining his index and sending off the necessary quotations. Consequently, his efforts were perhaps the most important of any single volunteer.

Winchester's account of Minor's life and contribution to the dictionary is sympathetic and touching without excusing Minor's murder. Along with an informative account of the composition of the dictionary, Winchester vividly describes Minor's mental illness. As such, The Professor and the Madman is as much a case study of paranoid schizophrenia as it is an account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The descriptions of Minor's delusions stand in fascinating contrast to the systematic work of the dictionary's editors and Minor's own meticulous research.

If there is a weakness to Winchester's account, it is that it focuses too narrowly on its two protagonists and gives short shrift to the wider community of philologists, lexicographers, and volunteer readers. Granted, Winchester clearly set out to present the extraordinary story of William Minor, with James Murray in a supporting role, but Minor's contribution to the dictionary cannot be fairly assessed or even understood without placing it in its proper context.

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