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

3.83 of 5 stars 3.83  ·  rating details  ·  59,250 ratings  ·  3,668 reviews
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 h ...more
Paperback, 252 pages
Published July 5th 2005 by Harper Perennial (first published 1998)
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Jeff Sikes Yep. It's mainly a character(s) piece with a little dictionary making background. Very cool--especially if your into lexicography or etymology.

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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
Jason Koivu
Apr 16, 2014 Jason Koivu rated it 5 of 5 stars
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
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
Diane Librarian
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
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, 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, then
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
Debbie Petersen
Sep 01, 2008 Debbie Petersen rated it 4 of 5 stars
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
Cathy DuPont
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
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
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.
Helvry Sinaga
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
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
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
Oct 12, 2010 Heather rated it 1 of 5 stars
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
Julie (jjmachshev)
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
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
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
I was incredibly—nay, shockingly—surprised at how uninterested I was in this book.

Because honestly, murder? Insanity?? DICTIONARIES??? This shit has “Monica!” written all over it.

But I think there was maybe too much murder. Or at the very least, too much stuff-after-the-murder. I found myself desperate to know more about the actual puttingtogetherness of the Oxford English Dictionary, and every time boring old Professor James Murray staggered onto the page I wanted to shove him out of the way al
Kelly V
Nov 04, 2007 Kelly V rated it 5 of 5 stars
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
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
What Goodreader wouldn't like a story about words? Easily 3 Stars for this tale of how an American doctor played a central role in the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. I was amazed and humbled by the story of James Murray, who only had formal schooling to age 14, yet rose to lead the OED effort. The man (and many of the age) had a thirst for knowledge and education that would be nice to see rekindled today. Dr W.C. Minor was interesting but there was not that much primary information on ...more
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
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
Reader, take it upon yourself to theorize the number of entries in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (henceforth OED). (view spoiler)

It seems an impossible task for any one man or woman or group of men or women or fairies to complete, does it not? But herein lies the solution: crowdsourcing. Yes, crowdsourcing, a word that not yet invented un
I read this book for the first time several years ago, and I continue to pick it up and reread it every so often. This book marked the start of my love affair with words.
A fascinating tale that would appeal to any word lover, and lover of language. Dr. William Minor, an American, was confined to an English asylum for many decades after committing a murder. His mental illness at that time was labeled dementia with delusions. In current times, it would be labeled differently. He was an extremely paranoid man who suffered from extreme delusions. But he was a brilliant man, who had been a US Army doctor, was educated at Yale and came from a wealthy New England famil ...more

*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
Fascinating subject. This is one of those stories where circumstances coincided so well with one another, it's hard to imagine how things would have gone otherwise. Of course, the OES would have been finished eventually, with or without Minor's help. His help however was so useful and essential to the cause, it goes without saying that the word collection would have taken much longer without him. Considering the fact that the project took seventy years with his help, one has to wonder how long i ...more
Casey Moore
If you like etymology, you should read "The Professor and the Madman." Etymology, the study of how words and language change over time, is not to be confused with epididymitis. Which occurs when a man's epididymis, the gummy tissue that connects the vas deferens to the testis, becomes inflamed and creates a relentless dull pain. I dabble in hypochondria from time to time and that fateful afternoon was no exception. Upon waking up with swollen testicles, I spent the better part of half an hour se ...more
14/7 - Despite the title this book didn't have that much to do with The Surgeon of Crowthorne or the murder of an innocent man which he committed whilst in a psychotic state. That was just a platform for Winchester to give the history of the Oxford English Dictionary - actually a more interesting topic than the murder anyway. I was very interested in the way the dictionary was compiled and the methodical way that Minor went through his personal library, creating his lists of words. I like making ...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.” 7 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.” 7 likes
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