Kelly V'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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Nov 04, 07

Recommended for: language geeks
Read in October, 2007

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 the project was really like. Not easy. There were several things that made the story so engaging.

One of the things I really liked about the story that's a little odd is that I felt it resonates quite a bit with modern project management issues. Initial estimates on the size of the project, including both the literal size of the published work (number of books), the amount of time required to accomplish it, and the number of people needed to carry it out were woefully low. The project grew and grew and grew, taking about 70 years in total. This is so like project estimation (especially in software projects) nowadays, and this amused me. But it also reminded me that estimation in an unknown domain is actually really hard. One more project-related point of interest is that the OED creation was basically a big open-source project, just like a lot of current software like Linux and so on. There were some core employees working in Oxford, but the bulk of the work was done by volunteer contributors who were distributed all over the UK and the US. This is just cool. It did lead to some kind of funny problems: Murray had to deal with some confused contributors, who didn't grasp the magnitude of the work they were to be doing and would send frustrating letters, for instance.

There were several other small things that were cool. I enjoyed the basic history of dictionaries in English (reminding us that some languages, like Czech, don't actually have single-language dictionaries)--this came partially out of the colonial idea that English was a pure and natural candidate to be the world's language. I also enjoyed Winchester's description of Minor's time in the Civil War, as he does a pretty good job of evoking the right feel in relatively small space. Finally, there are words and full definitions peppered throughout, and of course these were enjoyable.
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