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

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  108,735 ratings  ·  6,305 reviews
The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were c ...more
Paperback, 242 pages
Published 2005 by Harper Perennial (first published September 28th 1998)
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Karen Mental disorders have nothing to do with intelligence. When Dr. Minor was lucid enough to concentrate on the OED, he produced work that was fully vali…moreMental disorders have nothing to do with intelligence. When Dr. Minor was lucid enough to concentrate on the OED, he produced work that was fully validated by Dr. Murray and the rest of the editors. (less)
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" re…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)

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Start your review of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Jeffrey Keeten
Nov 22, 2015 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
Will Byrnes
Feb 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, nonfiction
Simon Winchester - image from Andersons Bookshop

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.

James Murray, the professor of the title - image from Slate

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
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
Sean Gibson
Apr 13, 2015 rated it really liked it
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
Hannah Greendale
Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

Eloquent writing and the talented vocal work of narrator Simon Jones make this brief account of one of the greatest known editors of the OED and his longtime collaborator (a man who conducted his research from the confines of an asylum) a fascinating read/listen.
This is the fascinating, incredible, but true story of the 70+ year project to compile “The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles” - a biography of words that became “The Oxford English Dictionary” (OED). Not that you’d know that from the title. I enjoyed the story more than the novelistic telling of it.

Imagine when there was no dictionary… when “looking something up” was impossible. That’s how it was for Shakespeare, hence his coinages are the ones that stuck, whether or not they were
Jason Koivu
Nov 22, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Diane S ☔
Sep 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 5000-2019, lor-2019
Another incredible story that one can put under the heading, "Truth is stranger than fiction." How lucky we are that now as readers, writers we can just look up a word, find its meaning and pronunciation, but such was not always the case. Until I read this book, I never really thought about this before, a time when this valuable resource was not available. What a huge undertaking this was, the amount of work staggering.

Murray and Minor, two men crucial to the project, but living in very differen
Jan 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: pub-1998
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,
Oct 05, 2010 rated it did not like it
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
Sep 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 09, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Aug 14, 2007 rated it really liked it
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

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
Lynne King
Oct 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 10-stars
I am unable to write a worthwhile review on this wonderful book by Simon Winchester. He has actually managed to make a book based upon the making of the Oxford English Dictionary a magical work. To think that a professor, James Murray, could work, via correspondence, with an American, Dr William Minor, a retired surgeon, for over twenty years and not realize until then that Dr Minor was in Broadmoor, a very famous and yet harsh lunatic asylum. Professor Murray, as he had never met him beforehand ...more
3.5 stars.

A lot of interesting and fascinating material covered in this book. But also some not so interesting and fascinating. If I had read it instead of listened to it, I don't know if I would've liked it or even finished it in a timely manner. But Winchester himself narrates and kept my attention. Lexicography and etymology seem incredibly boring. lol.

I had no idea about any of this! I don't think I've ever even used or seen an Oxford English Dictionary, being an American. I only remember Me
Lyn Elliott
Aug 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, crime
I read this under its original title. 'The Surgeon of Crowthorne'. It's a memorable book and on my list to re-read. According to Wikipedia, its title was changed to The Professor and the Madman for the US market:

'A journalist with three decades of experience, and the author of a dozen travel-inspired books, Winchester's initial proposal to write a book about an obscure lexicographer met with rejection. Only when Harper Collins editor Larry Ashmead read the proposal and championed the book did W
Debbie Petersen Wolven
Jul 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
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
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
Cathy DuPont
May 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 19, 2012 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
Nov 11, 2007 rated it it was ok
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. ...more
Book Concierge
Audiobook narrated by the author

The subtitle is all the synopsis you need: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

James Murray is the professor, a learned man who became the editor of the OED. Dr William C Minor is the madman, an American Civil-War veteran and surgeon whose paranoid delusions caused him to commit murder and resulted in his life-long commitment to an asylum for the criminally insane. Yet …

Simon Winchester crafts a compelling non-fiction narrati
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
May 03, 2014 rated it it was ok

*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
Dec 12, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Have you ever stopped to think about what would have been required to compile the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary? Each entry required a carefully researched etymology, a clear and precise definition, and supporting examples of usage and changes in usage over time. The first requirement was to read every printed word up to the time of its inception--every word.

In order to pull off this gargantuan feat, the participation of an army of volunteer readers and researchers was required
Jill Hutchinson
Dec 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
Since I am a person who took her learned brother's advice which was "read the dictionary every day", this book was right up my alley. The OED is one of the greatest literary feats in history and the story about the creation of it is simply fascinating. Where does one begin to capture all the words in the English language with the various meanings and nuances?...Professor James Murray, the editor put out a call for volunteers and thousands replied. But one person stood far above the rest with his ...more
My sister recommended both this and the movie version to me a while ago, but as is usual with family, I blew her off for far too long. But I am forced now to offer a sincere and public apology, because they were both great! And yes, there were some sloggy patches - we're telling the story of writing a dictionary, for goodness sake - but they were more than made up for by the stranger-than-fiction back story of Murray and Minor. I saw the movie first, then read the book - and now I really want to ...more
Nov 07, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Others here have done outstanding jobs on reviewing this non-fiction book of the most frankly unbelievable account that DID happen re the title. And for those of you who are lexicon prone, this is a must read.

Dictionary, dictionary, dictionary! Again and again (before the internet) I would "look up" the random word that seemed "new" to me.

Well, this is the story of the mighty many, many decades task that originated the OXFORD English Dictionary. First published in 1927 and begun not that much a
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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

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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.” 27 likes
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