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

3.84  ·  Rating Details ·  74,999 Ratings  ·  4,495 Reviews
Hailed by the New York Times as a fascinating, spicy, learned tale, this runaway national bestseller takes an extraordinary look into literary genius, madness, and the making of theOxford English Dictionary.
Hardcover, 242 pages
Published July 5th 2005 by Turtleback Books (first published 1998)
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Breeze Am currently reading for book club. Love the use of language and the references to different words. Definitely worth reading although not a "light"…moreAm currently reading for book club. Love the use of language and the references to different words. Definitely worth reading although not a "light" read.(less)
Lori I read it on my Kindle under the original titled. It was on loan from the library. I hate when they change titles. It's always to something less…moreI read it on my Kindle under the original titled. It was on loan from the library. I hate when they change titles. It's always to something less imaginative. We are book readers for god's sakes. why dumb things down?(less)
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Community Reviews

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Stephen
As a completely fledged bibliopsychotic and an ever-striving-to-be cunning-linguist , I was all aquiver with anticipation to bury my face in this purported history of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Alas, despite being well-written and thoroughly researched, I’m having to fake it a bit to give this a full 3 stars.

My primary joy-dampening problem with the book’s arrangement was the dearth of page time given to what I see as the most fascinating aspect of the story…the actual nuts and bolts
...more
Jeffrey Keeten
Nov 22, 2015 Jeffrey Keeten rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
...for each word, there should be sentences that show the twists and turns of meanings—the way almost every word slips in its silvery, fishlike way, weaving this way and that, adding subtleties of nuance to itself, and then perhaps shedding them as public mood dictates.”

 photo Herbert20Coleridge_zpsazwtfbht.jpg
Herbert Coleridge whose brilliant life was too short.

I was driving into work the other day thinking about Herbert Coleridge and realized that I might possibly be the only person on the planet driving to work thinking about Her
...more
Sean Gibson
Apr 13, 2015 Sean Gibson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
People tend to juxtapose the idea of reading the dictionary with other activities as a means of underscoring how incredibly uninteresting and undesirable those other activities are. For example: “I have to interact with Sean today…UGH. I’d much rather read the dictionary.”

This is an effective comparison for good reason. Look, I love words as much as the next guy, but even I find reading the dictionary only slightly more fun than reading the phone book (“What’s a phone book?” ask all the millenni
...more
Will Byrnes
Professor James Murray was one of the primary editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Dr Chester Minor, was one of the primary contributors to the massive project. But Murray did not know that Minor was an inmate in an insane asylum.

description
Simon Winchester - image from Andersons Bookshop

The book tells their separate stories, how Murray rose to the prominence necessary to land this major position, how Minor emerged from a troubled, if well-to-do youth to commit a heinous and addled murder in L
...more
Jason Koivu
Nov 22, 2008 Jason Koivu rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: word nerds that want a bit of titillation
Recommended to Jason by: friends
A man goes insane, shoots another man to death and then helps write one of the first complete dictionaries. What an odd way to enter the academic world!

And believe it or not, those aren't even spoilers! Simon Winchester gives us all that right in the title of his surprisingly riveting read The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The idea of reading a book on the creation of a dictionary only sounded mildly interesting. In the hands
...more
Kinga
If you know me personally or almost personally, then you should be aware that I am quite mad. I have a heavy obsession with the alphabet, with inventing bizarre systems that rule just about anything in my life and catalouging things. It is quite obvious that a book about a lunatic and creating Oxford English Dictionary would be a winner with me. And it was.
However, it wasn't perfect. Winchester performed some weird narrative experiments. For example, he started off with a really exciting scene,
...more
Danae
Sep 09, 2008 Danae rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a perfect example of a book that I wish had been written by David McCullough. I gave it three stars based primarily on potential--the story itself was very interesting; the writing was more like 2 stars. I cannot believe this man has been able to make his living as a writer on two continents. His main problem was being redundant, giving the general impression that his target audience was not-too-bright fifth graders (I don't need every little coincidence and connection pointed out 5 time ...more
Trevor
Sep 04, 2008 Trevor rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have been meaning to read this book for years – I couldn’t even tell you when I first saw it or heard about it and thought it would be a good idea to read. Then I saw a copy in a bookshop that was going cheap and bought it on my way to my mother’s place. I showed it to her and then lent it to her. She told me she enjoyed it – so that made me keen to read it too. That was a couple of years ago – as you see, I was in no rush. I think mum even lent it to my sister to read.

This was a remarkable b
...more
Diane
Aug 14, 2007 Diane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Calling all bibliophiles! Have you ever wondered how that magnificent beast, the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED), came into being? Well, this is the book for you.

Simon Winchester weaves together the story of two men in Victorian England: one was Professor James Murray, who was editing what was to become the definitive work on the English language; the other was William Chester Minor, who had committed murder and was living in a lunatic asylum. Both men had a love of words, and because
...more
Debbie Petersen
Jul 10, 2008 Debbie Petersen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: linguists, English Majors, historians
This book has been on my to-read list for some time, and I had a few preconceived ideas that turned out to be wrong. For instance, I had assumed that the "madman" would have been someone psychotically insane, the type of man that you would pass in the street and cross to the other side, since he would be unkempt and smelly and gibbering nonsense to unseen companions. As it turns out, the "madman" was an American doctor, educated at Yale, who was a surgeon and former Army officer. He apparently s ...more
Bettie☯
Broadmoor

Description: Hidden within the rituals of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is a fascinating mystery. Professor James Murray was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was one of the most prolific contributors to the dictionary, sending thousands of neat, hand-written quotations from his home. After numerous refusals from Minor to visit his home in Oxford, Murray set out to find him. It
...more
Cathy DuPont
May 16, 2012 Cathy DuPont rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) had no English dictionary to reference when he wrote his 38 plays, sonnets and poems.

Until Samuel Johnson, an English writer and lexicographer, compiled A Dictionary of the English Language the English speaking people had few concise or friendly dictionaries to refer to for definitions and/or spellings. Johnson’s volume took nine years to complete and was published in 1755 with a total of 42,773 words defined and it weighed about 22 pounds. Johnson’s was the ‘go
...more
Heather
Oct 05, 2010 Heather rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who want to fall asleep or get angry
I can't believe people get paid to write books like this. I'm surprised it's not twice as long, since he employs half a dozen methods to inflate the page count. The actual story itself is fascinating, absolutely! But the writing was all fluffy excited repetitious drama, full of egoistic awe of one's own flair for "understanding" what these people must have felt and thought.

It was a manipulative sham of a book.

You know those History Channel shows where they set up this big mystery and get all d
...more
Velma
I procrastinated writing this review because I couldn’t make up my mind how many stars to award this book. The intriguing story and strong prose were overwhelmed by lack of citation, rampant speculation, and the egregiously clumsy literary device underlying the central relationship of the two protagonists. Winchester built up this great mystery about Dr. Minor, the reclusive contributor to Prof. Murray's editorial efforts, culminating in the exciting revelation about Minor's circumstances, then ...more
Chrissie
Feb 19, 2012 Chrissie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Chrissie by: Lynne
I chose this book since so many of my friends highly recommended it, but to be honest I was a little hesitant. I couldn't figure out what could be so interesting about the compilation of a dictionary.

Simon Winchester, the author and also narrator of the audiobook, chooses just the right details. As you read or listen you drawn into the complexity involved in the Oxford English Dictionary 's making. You learn why it was needed, you learn how it differed from previous dictionaries, you learn abou
...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
This is the first pick of the 2016-17 season for my in-person book club. I had started it once before but it never really compelled me to pick it up and keep reading. As someone who teaches about research, I am actually quite intrigued by the history of how great reference works like the Oxford English Dictionary were put together, but I suspect that the author is making more out of the story of the primary editor and one contributor, a story that doesn't quite fill a book yet he makes it do so. ...more
Helen
What should have been an interesting story somehow made tediously dull. I got around half way through, then skimmed to the end. I thought I'd love this, since I enjoy finding curious new words and discovering their origins.
I was all set for my journey into lexicography, with dictionary at the ready. However, the tone of the writing and the unnecessary peppering of the text with words even Stephen Fry uses only on special occasions does not convey a love of language, it's just irritating smart-ar
...more
Emily
Nov 11, 2007 Emily rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
this book is pretentious. I guess if you have to write a book about the OED, it has to be written in a really pretentious, loquacious manner with lots of stupid words like "loquacious". that being said, it is an interesting story.
Amantha
May 03, 2014 Amantha rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I JUST WROTE A LONG EFFING REVIEW ABOUT WHY THIS WAS A TERRIBLE BOOK AND FREAKING GOODREADS DELETED IT BECAUSE I CLICKED OUTSIDE THE STUPID REVIEW SQUARE WHILE TRYING TO RING UP A CUSTOMER. I CAN'T REPRODUCE IT SO HERE ARE THE BULLET POINTS:

*Winchester has zero grasp of psychology. He may be worse than Freud himself, and that's saying something. Winchester went so far as to suggest that Dr. Minor (the titular madman) could have avoided becoming schizophrenic if he'd just fucked his girlfriend as
...more
Jan-Maat
Moderately entertaining and a good story. Since this well to do prisoner was allowed an extensive library and wide ranging access to books, it is interesting how the influence of class extended into the Victorian prison system.

Books like this, recognisable because they have a shortish title followed by a long explanatory subtitle, seem to have become a well established part of the UK non-fiction scene. On the whole, and this book is no exception, I'm left with the feeling that there is a good es
...more
Helvry Sinaga
Aug 25, 2010 Helvry Sinaga rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Saya sampai lupa dimana buku ini dibeli, sempat mengintip review dari teman GRI, saya baca reviewnya Pak Tanzil, dan memutuskan membaca buku ini. Saya salah. Tadinya saya mengira buku ini adalah novel, ternyata buku ini adalah semacam "pengantar" pada suatu kisah besar penciptaan kamus yang dianggap termashyur abad ini, yaitu The Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Ditulis oleh Simon Winchester, Ia lahir di London Utara pada 28 September 1944, terlahir sebagai anak tunggal Bernard and Andrée Winches
...more
Albert
Feb 19, 2017 Albert rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
It was the chance to learn about the history behind the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) that attracted me to this book. I am not sure I have ever used the OED or if I have I do not remember noting its unique characteristics. The quite novel approach that was used to collect the examples of word use was such an obvious solution in an age without computers but that made my surprise all the more enjoyable. Taking 70 years to complete the overall effort with individuals dedicating th ...more
Kelly V
Oct 12, 2007 Kelly V rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: language geeks
I absolutely loved this book. The fundamental story was really interesting and consistently kept me excited about reading the next page. It is basically about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and specifically two of the key players in that venture: James Murray (the Scottish editor working in England) and W. C. Minor (the American contributor living in an English insane asylum). It doesn't pretend to tell the full story of the OED, but it does give a really good feel for what ...more
Julie (jjmachshev)
Sep 05, 2008 Julie (jjmachshev) rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2009-reads
The fascinating and poignant story of the Oxford English Dictionary and two similar, yet very different in circumstance, men whose lives would likely never have crossed except for their work on the OED. Although I had heard the story of the 'lunatic American doctor' who contributed reams of information for the OED, I still found myself riveted to the sad story (and occasional salacious detail in my opinion). As a word geek myself, I have a love/hate affair with dictionaries and yes, there are ti ...more
JuliAnna
I love intellectual history and books about books. I am increasingly taken with the 19th century and the British gentlemen scholars who (on the wings of Empire) conducted their research independently of academic institutions and the need to generate an income. And, I won't go into my long standing interests in madness and etymology (although not necessarily in combination). "The Professor and the Madman" weaves together all of these themes in a book that unfortunately never becomes more than a m ...more
Chris
May 29, 2017 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: lexicographers, lovers of nonfiction and history
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is an exploration of the lives of two men (and countless other anonymous volunteers) who meticulously crafted the Oxford English Dictionary; a dictionary to this day remains the authority on the English language.

This historical enquiry covers a broad scope. We follow the life of a Dr. William Chester Minor, from his youth to his time in a lunatic asylum for the criminally insane. We meet Si
...more
Marvin
Jul 12, 2011 Marvin rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Simon Winchester gave us a lot of information in this unusual tale of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. So why do I feel it was stretched out even at 200+ pages. Well, it really is a bit of a thin story . Aside from the story of Dr. Minor's crime and his resulting mental incarceration, not much happens. Surely, I found the history of the English dictionary entertaining but I couldn't help thinking that Winchester may have exaggerated the importance of Minor's contributions. After all, ...more
Juliana
Feb 08, 2009 Juliana rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nonfiction
I enjoyed geeking out about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and that's definitely what attracted me to this book. I was fascinated by the description of Minor's methodical process of collecting examples of words, and in fact could have read more of this type of thing. That being said, I had the problem I often have with popular nonfiction-- I'm a bit too much of an academic. I want footnotes, I want to know why the writer is saying this is what happened and what their support is for ...more
Max
Jan 28, 2016 Max rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: european-history
To turn the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary into an interesting story takes a gifted writer and clearly Winchester is one. Interposing profiles of the project’s proper academic leader, James Murray, with the much more intriguing deranged contributor, William Minor, Winchester weaves an absorbing narrative. Throughout he offers up obscure lexicographical tidbits. We learn about the history of dictionaries and fun new words like sesquipedalianism. We even learn how deserters were trea ...more
Rebecca
Bibliophiles, logomaniacs, OEDites everywhere-- this is a GREAT word-addled romp. Who knew that the history of English dictionaries would be so riveting? The professor and the madman are respectively the editor of the OED and a brilliant and an institutionalized contributor. The narrative is the story of their lives, their phililogical and etymological overlap, and the completion of the OED. There's lots of spine-tingling victorian mystery with the murderous madman-- but in the end, in spite of ...more
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Simon Winchester, OBE, is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster who resides in the United States. Through his career at The Guardian, Winchester covered numerous significant events including Bloody Sunday and the Watergate Scandal. As an author, Simon Winchester has written or contributed to over a dozen nonfiction books and authored one novel, and his articles appear in several travel publ ...more
More about Simon Winchester...

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“And after that, and also for each word, there should be sentences that show the twists and turns of meanings—the way almost every word slips in its silvery, fishlike way, weaving this way and that, adding subtleties of nuance to itself, and then perhaps shedding them as public mood dictates.” 12 likes
“Any grand new dictionary ought itself to be a democratic product, a book that demonstrated the primacy of individual freedoms, of the notion that one could use words freely, as one liked, without hard and fast rules of lexical conduct.” 8 likes
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