The complete title of this work is The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary and it fully lives up to this title. It is the history of Professor James Murray (the Professor) and Dr. W.C. Minor (the Madman) and their serendipitously linked lives through one of the greatest feats of the English-speaking world.
It’s a fascinating combination of historical novel about the Oxford English Dictionary and Biography of its longest editors (Murray) and greatest contributors (Minor). If there’s one major critique I have is that it often felt like the author purposefully used a ridiculous synonyms when a simple word would suffice. However, with his obsession for lexicography and the OED in particular, it’s not too surprising.
The story itself is fascinating, it traces Murray’s and Minor’s lives from birth to death and points out both the similarities and differences, and subtly mixes in the history of the OED and how each became involved, from Minor’s murder of a complete stranger to Murray’s insatiable curiosity as a child. What I truly appreciate about the historical research done is Winchester’s acknowledgement that some of the perceived story is not what actually happened. He makes a fair effort to point this out and to provide ample evidence to show this, specifically around the romanticized first meeting of Minor and Murray.
I thought the book was laid out in a logical order bringing Murray, Minor and the OED to a denouement at precisely the right moment and slowly fading the book out, like the lives of all three. The OED stands as a testament today and I can’t help but look at other democratically created banks of knowledge, Wikipedia and Wiktionary are just two examples, and smile. These men and women (the hundreds, if not thousands) did what we do on a daily basis and take for granted with our computers, mobiles and the internet, by hand and through the mail. I wish I had the money to purchase a copy of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, because I totally would just as a marvel of the work all of those people did, and the technology available that has allowed us to reduce 22 volumes into one volume even if it is microscopic print!
Recommendation: Read it.
Quotes from The Professor and the Madman
“It is the unrivaled cornerstone of any good library, an essential work for any reference collection. And it is still cited as a matter of course—’the OED says’—in parliaments, courtrooms, schools, and lecture halls in every corner of the English-speaking world, and probably in countless others beyond.” (26)
“It is a book that inspires real and lasting affection: It is an awe-inspiring work, the most important reference book ever made, and, given the unending importance of the English language, probably the most important that is ever likely to be.” (27)
“Any such dictionary should not be an absolutist, autocratic product, such as the French had in mind: The English, who had raised eccentricity and poor organization to a high art, and placed the scatterbrain on a pedestal, loathed such Middle European things as rules, conventions, and dictatorships.” (106)
“It was the heroic creation of a legion of interested and enthusiastic men and women of wide general knowledge and interest; and it lives on today, just as lives the language of which it rightly claims to be a portrait.” (220)