Debbie Petersen's Reviews > The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
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Sep 01, 08

really liked it
Recommended for: linguists, English Majors, historians
Read in August, 2008

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 suffered from schizophrenia or some similar mental illness, and in a moment of insanity shoots an innocent factory worker on his way to work. The subsequent trial became one of the first instances to find someone guilty of the charge, but innocent by reason of insanity. William Chester Minor spends the rest of his life in an insane asylum, the name of which is the basis for the word "bedlam." The story weaves back and forth between a Dickensian London, Civil War battlefields and an acedemic society that had taken on the daunting task of putting together a dictionary that encompassed the English language in its entirety. An appeal went out to the public for learned volunteers to read books and submit words on scraps of paper along with their origin, context and definitions. Tens of thousands of entries came from one person--William Chester Minor. Once the entire background of the man is known, it is not too surprising; he has all of the time in the world on his hands, and hundreds of books at his disposal. It took over 70 years for the OED to be completed. One has to wonder how much longer it would have taken if William Chester Minor had not shot and killed poor George Merritt.

I found this book fascinating. At times the author becomes bogged down in detail, causing the mind to wander a bit, which is why I gave 4 stars instead of 5. Still a must-read for all lovers of words.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Trevor I'm literally half way through this book at the moment - how strange these little connections can be. I'm enjoying it very much, but do know what you mean about some of the detail.


message 2: by Sara (new)

Sara it seems you actually gave it 2 stars...


Debbie Petersen You're right Sara! I wonder if I went back and changed it to two later? Or my finger slipped? I can't remember. Maybe I'll check it out from the library again and see how I feel about it now.


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