The Professor
and the Madman
by Simon Winchester
Book Review by Amy Coffin
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It took more than seventy years to create the twelve tombstone-size volumes that made up the first edition of what was to become the great Oxford English Dictionary

The OED relies on quotations from "published or otherwise recorded uses of English" to illustrate the use (or uses) of every single word in the language. Whereas your basic college dictionary will show a pronunciation and definition for many words, the OED shows the evolution of ALL the words in this language.

The overwhelming task of collecting this information began in 1857. In 1879, a call for readers was sent out. Volunteers were needed to read texts from all periods and submit quotes that they felt might be useful to the editors of the OED. Examples were recorded on slips of paper and sent in by the tens of thousands. Each slip of paper was then read and sorted by hand for possible consideration.

Amidst the blizzard of paper it was quickly noticed that a sizeable portion of the slips were coming from a one man, Dr. W.C. Minor. This valuable participant was quite reclusive, but nearly all of his input was deemed appropriate for the OED. It is estimated that 10,000 words featured in the first edition were included because of Dr. Minor's dedication.

No man was more grateful of that dedication than Dr. James Murray, the overseer of the OED project. After twenty years of entirely written correspondence, Dr. Murray decided to pay a visit to one of his most valuable contributors. Dr. Murray took the train to Dr. Minor's location. A buggy met him at the station and drove him to the door of a large mansion. Dr. Murray entered the foyer.

(He) bowed gravely, and launched into the brief speech of greeting that he had so long rehearsed:

"A very good afternoon to you sir. I am Dr. James Murray, of the London Philological Society and Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. It is indeed an honour and a pleasure to at long last meet your acquaintance-for you must be, kind sir, my most assiduous helpmeet, Dr. W.C. Minor?"

"I regret, kind sir, that I am not. It is not at all as you suppose. I am in fact the Governor of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Dr. Minor is most certainly here. But he is an inmate. He has been a patient here for more than twenty years. He is our longest-staying resident."

Now, now, don't get uptight. This little bombshell is discussed in the beginning of the book, as well as the back cover. I can't possibly give anything away. After all, this is history. It already happened, and it's true.

The Professor and the Madman chronicles the overwhelming task of creating the Oxford English Dictionary. To my surprise, Simon Winchester is able to take this dry topic and mold it into a fascinating tale.

Brief biographies are given for the two doctors. Minor was actually an American Civil War veteran who found his way to London. Why he went there, how he ended up institutionalized, and the reference in the title to the murder are all discoveries you'll have to make yourself. Sorry!

There is also an interesting description of the development of the dictionary itself. Winchester documents not only the organization and preparation, but the politics and hurdles faced by the editorial staff.

There was only one drawback in this tale, and it quite possibly could just be a matter of my personal preference. Toward the end of the book, Winchester gives a quick history of schizophrenia. This is the current word for Dr. Minor's affliction, but the disease and its name weren't known 150 years ago. Perhaps this little lesson was needed to educate those unfamiliar with the disease, but it seemed to detract slightly from the story in my opinion.

I do recommend The Professor and the Madman to the majority of readers out there. Those who enjoy "books" as a subject in itself will find this tale most interesting. In this case, truth is stranger than fiction in this tale of "murder, insanity and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary." Enjoy!