David'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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's review
Sep 07, 2009

really liked it

Two books in one, not always especially well-integrated, but that didn't lower my enjoyment noticeably. One is a history of dictionary-making and particularly the massive decades-long project of compiling first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I was pleased to tell my wife and daughter the rationale for the first effort at a dictionary (1604), namely "for the benefit and help of Ladies, gentlewomen or any other unskillful persons, whereby they may more easilie and better vnderstand many hard English wordes". Goes into considerable detail on how they created the OED, relying on a large army of volunteers to write down and mail in sample quotations illustrating the various senses of a word, changes over time in its shades of meaning, etc.

It's somewhat hard to imagine being able to persuade people to perform this chore, particularly for non-exotic words (quick, track down some uses of the word "take" and send them to me with complete citation), but I suppose the sort of person who today is spending a lot of time editing Wikipedia entries existed then too and was inspired by the overall goal.

One of those inspired amateurs was an American Civil War vet, Dr. Minor, who was working nearly fulltime on the project for years while confined to an institution for the "criminally insane" as a result of a murder he committed. His sad story is the other main focus of the book, particularly his growing friendship with the OED editor.

During the time I was reading this book the father of lifelong friends of mine died. I knew he was a words guy of the first order but only learned from the eulogies that he used to hunt yard sales for extra dictionaries to buy up and give away to people who needed them (everybody, in his view). JJD, you're sorely missed. You would have enjoyed this book!

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