The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman

A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Book - 1998
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Now a major motion picture
Publisher: New York : HarperCollins Publishers, c1998.
Edition: 1st ed.
ISBN: 9780060175962
Branch Call Number: 921 MURRAY, JAMES
Characteristics: xi, 242 p. : ill. ; 22 cm.


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" But then he began to harbor suspicions about his fellow soldiers. He said he thought they were muttering about him, glancing suspiciously at him all the time. One officer in particular troubled Minor, began teasing him goading him, persecuting him in ways that Minor would never discuss. He challenged the man to a duel and had to be reprimanded by the fort commander. The officer was one of Minor's best friends, said the commander---and both he and the friend later said they were incredulous that they had fallen out so badly, for no obvious reason. . . . Minor appeared to have taken a leave of his senses. It was all very puzzling, and to his friends and family, deeply distressing." Seems reminiscent of both Poe and Dostoevsky. Otto Rank once turned his attention to this phenomenon.

patcumming Aug 09, 2018

I enjoyed the parts that described the methodology used to compile the OED. I had never really thought about what a Herculean effort it took. But the story about the professor and the madman was disappointing. Few facts, lots of speculation.

Mar 30, 2018

Interesting reading, especially about the OED. Agree with other readers who thought it was too "fluffed out" - the entire story could have been told in half the length or less. I was really put off by the author's suggestion (without a shred of supporting evidence) that there might have been an affair between the madman/murderer and the widow of the murdered man (after he was incarcerated in the asylum). This added nothing to the story and degraded the overall quality of the writing.

CRRL_MegRaymond Feb 21, 2018

The fascinating story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary also includes the story of a Civil War surgeon committed to Broadmoor, an English insane asylum.

Feb 05, 2018

Simply brilliant!!!!Simon Winchester weaves an true amazing tale, much like his other books.

Feb 02, 2018

This is being made into a movie starring Sean Penn and Mel Gibson

Nov 10, 2017

The story is interesting, but (sorry) it could have been told with much less fluff.

Aug 31, 2017

As a linear thinker, I greatly appreciated the detailed process that Dr. Murray set in motion to begin the immense task of creating a proper English dictionary. This became the revered and iconic Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Attempting such a daunting task in the 19th century required many, many readers and contributors to comb all English works to help define the word accurately in all its forms while determining when it was first used as well as including sentences showing usage. Murray placed ads with booksellers and one of those ads found its way to Dr. Minor in his asylum cell. Thus a decades-long relationship was born which benefited both men as well as the dictionary project.

As many nonfiction books show us, truth can absolutely be stranger than fiction. Winchester tells us the story in such a way that we appreciate both players while understanding the circumstances they were immersed in. Recommended!

Aug 30, 2017

This may be the most singularly nerdy book group book I've read, but it's also an enjoyable one. It blends what could easily be a sensational, lurid story with an obvious, fitting love of words, blended with a dose of compassion for the plight of the insane Dr. W.C. Minor. In the age of Wikipedia and crowdsourcing, it's mind-boggling to imagine the the analogue process of putting together such an exhaustive, enduring legacy as the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. A charming bit of narrative non-fiction.

SCL_Justin Aug 05, 2017

Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman is a story about two Victorian white men who helped create the Oxford English Dictionary. One of them went mad after the American Civil War and killed a man in England, where he was sent to an asylum. The other was a philologist who had trouble getting meaningful work in his field. Together they (did not) fight crime!

Winchester tells this story very well, with many digressions into the interesting-if-you-don’t-have-to-do-it drudgework of creating a complete record of the English language. Throughout the story he mentions that there are issues to be taken with the OED, the kinds of issues of imperialism and entrenchment of power, but it’s primarily an easily readable celebration of the work these two people (among many) put into this enormous piece of literature.

One thing I didn’t appreciate was how the prologue uses a dramatic version of the first in-person meeting between the two men, but then later in the book it explains how that was americanized bull written to sell newspapers in a “too good to check” kind of era. I just felt it was disingenuous to use the story as a hook in exactly the same way. But whatever. It gave me something easy to hang the story on, and got me into it in the first place. Maybe it doesn’t matter that it’s a lie.

This story wouldn’t be remarkable at all if it was being told about Wikipedia. I tend to think of its whole community of volunteers working together on a collection of human knowledge as something new and technological in an internet-only kind of way, but that is also how the OED was built. Contributors included some experts and some random citizens (who happened to be guilty of crimes). Wikipedia just flips the expected ratios of those expected categories.

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