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

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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 collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

242 pages, Paperback

First published September 28, 1998

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About the author

Simon Winchester

83 books2,026 followers
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 publications including Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian Magazine, and National Geographic.

In 1969, Winchester joined The Guardian, first as regional correspondent based in Newcastle upon Tyne, but was later assigned to be the Northern Ireland Correspondent. Winchester's time in Northern Ireland placed him around several events of The Troubles, including the events of Bloody Sunday and the Belfast Hour of Terror.

After leaving Northern Ireland in 1972, Winchester was briefly assigned to Calcutta before becoming The Guardian's American correspondent in Washington, D.C., where Winchester covered news ranging from the end of Richard Nixon's administration to the start of Jimmy Carter's presidency. In 1982, while working as the Chief Foreign Feature Writer for The Sunday Times, Winchester was on location for the invasion of the Falklands Islands by Argentine forces. Suspected of being a spy, Winchester was held as a prisoner in Tierra del Fuego for three months.

Winchester's first book, In Holy Terror, was published by Faber and Faber in 1975. The book drew heavily on his first-hand experiences during the turmoils in Ulster. In 1976, Winchester published his second book, American Heartbeat, which dealt with his personal travels through the American heartland. Winchester's third book, Prison Diary, was a recounting of his imprisonment at Tierra del Fuego during the Falklands War and, as noted by Dr Jules Smith, is responsible for his rise to prominence in the United Kingdom. Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Winchester produced several travel books, most of which dealt with Asian and Pacific locations including Korea, Hong Kong, and the Yangtze River.

Winchester's first truly successful book was The Professor and the Madman (1998), published by Penguin UK as The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Telling the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the book was a New York Times Best Seller, and Mel Gibson optioned the rights to a film version, likely to be directed by John Boorman.

Though Winchester still writes travel books, he has repeated the narrative non-fiction form he used in The Professor and the Madman several times, many of which ended in books placed on best sellers lists. His 2001 book, The Map that Changed the World, focused on geologist William Smith and was Whichester's second New York Times best seller. The year 2003 saw Winchester release another book on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Meaning of Everything, as well as the best-selling Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. Winchester followed Krakatoa's volcano with San Francisco's 1906 earthquake in A Crack in the Edge of the World. The Man Who Loved China (2008) retells the life of eccentric Cambridge scholar Joseph Needham, who helped to expose China to the western world. Winchester's latest book, The Alice Behind Wonderland, was released March 11, 2011.
- source Wikipedia

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books249k followers
June 5, 2020
...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 Herbie. Of course, there are such a vast number of people on this planet that chances are someone was thinking about him. Perhaps some Coleridge scholar working on a dissertation on Herbert’s famous grandfather, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or maybe someone thinking about the beginnings of the Oxford English Dictionary. Herbert Coleridge was technically the first editor of the OED and would have done a fine job, I’m sure, if he hadn’t caught a chill and died tragically young at thirty years of age.

The reason I was thinking about him is because Simon Winchester mentioned him, and my quick research, before leaving for work, had been unsatisfactory in discovering how exactly he was descended from Samuel. He was not the son of one of Samuel’s sons so that only left the daughter Sara. Of course, my first thought was that she must have had him out of wedlock. I must formally apologize to Mrs. Sara Coleridge for thinking such scandalous thoughts. As it turns out, she married her first cousin Henry Nelson Coleridge. Herbert was very much a legitimate child.

Though the idea of creating a complete dictionary of the English language was proposed in 1857. It was not until 1884 that parts of it were ready for publication. It floundered for decades under the weight of its own expectations. It wasn’t until the 1870s, when James Murray was asked to helm the project, that the possibility of achieving such a feat became a real possibility.

Murray was a precocious talent, a true scholar who was, for the most part, self-educated. ”James continued to amass more and more knowledge, if only (as he would admit) for the sake of knowledge itself, and often in the most eccentric of ways.” We are living in an age of specialized knowledge, and too many people only read books or magazine articles that contribute to their specialized knowledge. Knowing something for the sake of knowing it has become such an outdated concept as to be considered odd behavior.

 photo James20Murray_zpsfulo1njp.jpg
James Murray in the scriptorium built to house all the slips of paper coming in from his readers to compile the OED.

Murray knew that this project was too large for the academic community to shoulder alone. He placed advertisements asking for help from the whole country. He needed readers who would notate words and the sentence they were used in. The system Murray developed to handle this influx of information is ingenious, and like most clever systems simple by design. One of the people who answered his call for help was an American surgeon named Doctor William Chester Minor.

He became one of the largest, most consistent contributors to the OED. He had a lot of time on his hands given the fact that he was…”detained in safe custody until Her Majesty's Pleasure be known.” Doesn’t that sound lovely. I could almost believe that Minor is sipping tea and eating cucumber sandwiches while seated at a garden table at Windsor waiting for the Queen to have a chance to see him. Unfortunately, it is just a pretty way of saying he is incarcerated in an asylum for the criminally insane.

As you learn the details of his life he was most assuredly dangerously insane with roots for this insanity going back to the time he served in the Union army during the Civil War. The roots went deeper, in fact back into his genetic history. His family was delicate mentally. They were bright and brilliant but like many hyper intelligent people wound too tight. They felt things too intently. Two of his brothers committed suicide.

Minor was beset by twisted, shattered dreams involving Irish people trying to kill. He was a self-reproaching masturbator who also has vivid nightmares which fueled his already prodigious self-abuse. ”Men would then break into his rooms, place him in a flying machine, and take him to brothels in Constantinople, where he would be forced to perform acts of terrible lewdness with cheap women and small girls.” His delusions wrapped in fear bled dreams into reality causing him to misinterpret events around him. This all culminated in one final act which made it readily apparent that his incarceration was the only option left for society.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the Madman and the Professor, without the added distractions of Ingrid Bergman or Paul Henreid.

Though Minor was held in Broadmoor for the criminally insane, he had money and, therefore, could enjoy more luxury than the normal inmate. In fact, he rented a second cell, and that became his sitting room and library. He paid another inmate to build him beautiful, teak bookshelves. His wealth enabled him to also buy expensive antique books from bookstores not only in England, but from America as well. Considering the circumstances, he was beyond just comfortable, and if one can ignore the bars on the windows, you might even say he was pampered. Working on the OED helped him focus his mind and probably kept him from spiralling deeper into his own misconceptions.

 photo william-chester-minor_zpsgbugzjgm.jpg
Dr. William Chester Minor

The OED did not reach completion until 1928. Neither Murray nor Minor lived long enough to see the job done, but without their Herculean efforts the whole idea may have been relegated to another generation or maybe never completed at all.

As Murray became more and more famous, he became more and more uncomfortable with the attention. ”I’m a nobody,” he would write toward the end of the century, when fame had begun to creep up on him. “Treat me as a solar myth, or an echo, or an irrational quantity, or ignore me altogether.”

If we are fortunate, we find a worthwhile task to do while on this planet. Murray and Minor both found that task in compiling the English language. Winchester does a wonderful job of conveying the absurdity and the wonderfulness of these two men finding so much in common, despite one existing in the hallowed halls of academia and the other existing in the bedlam of an asylum.

I once dated a young lady who owned a two volume boxed copy of the OED, which also included a small drawer on top for the much needed magnifying glass. It was an affordable way to own the twenty volume OED. I can remember spending many afternoons randomly turning pages and reading definitions of words I’ll probably never read in a novel or ever use in a sentence.

I was accused by a friend of dating this girl for the primary purpose of having access to her OED. I was appalled and offended by such a dastardly assertion. I was, if anything, dating her for her F. Scott Fitzgerald first edition collection. I could eventually afford an OED, but getting my hands on first edition Fitzgerald’s was looking more and more improbable. Alas, as it turns out, the woman was batshit crazy, so a merging of libraries never occurred. I do think back to those halcyon days when she had left for work, and it was just me, the OED, and the Fitzgeralds. *Sigh*

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,516 reviews11.2k followers
January 3, 2012
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 of putting together the OED and the history of etymological word-cataloging. Unfortunately, this element only makes up about 20% to 25% of the book with the majority devoted to the life stories of Professor James Murray, head of the OED project, and Dr. W.C. Minor, a criminally insane murderer. This was a disappointing use of subject matter allocation.

Most of the biographical portion is devoted to Dr. Minor who, admittedly, was a fascinating character with a colorful history. The author traces the madman’s early career as an Army surgeon during the Civil War, an experience that appears to have been the genesis of his growing dementia. We are given insight into Minor’s abby normal sexual appetites and his irrational, all-consuming fear of Irishmen. This potent combination leads eventually to “the crime” that earned him a permanent residency at Broadmoor Hospital (aka lunatic asylum).

As interesting as this material was, I would have much preferred a more cliff notey segment on Minor to make room for a more expansive discussion of the “highlights” below. Granted, when Dr. Minor coolly and methodically lops off his own penis as a self-help remedy to combat the “demons” causing his bizarre sexual urges…I was glued like Elmer’s to the page. I was also wincing and reading with one hand while the other one was guarding my goodies.

BTW...the man never even screamed while he removed his appendage. I screamed reading about it. The guy was a whole bowl of grape-nuts.

As for Professor Murray, I found the portions dealing with him to be tedious and dry. I could have done without them completely so his appearance has been edited from this review.

Still, there is some real gold in the book. Even with the relatively scant attention paid to the actual production of the OED, there were a handful of highlights that make this book well worth perusing.


** The history of word collection, origins and philological research into first usage was nothing short of “warm butter on hot bread” awesome and I gobbled up every second of it. Please give me a full book on this someday…squeeeeee. These discussions about the research methods and the comprehensive aspect of the undertaken begun in 1857 on the OED was mind-boggling. I also particularly enjoyed the distinctions drawn between the heterogeneous linguistic “melting pot” that is the English language and the relatively homogenous, strictly pure bred French language.

** There was one genuine “light bulb” moment of illumination discussed by the author that really left me floored with mouth agape. While giving a run down on the origin of the first dictionary, Winchester discusses the fact that Shakespeare, with his amazingly diverse vocabulary, was able to write such works with no centralized catalog of words allowing him to confirm their proper usage. This...was...staggering...to...me and was easily the most valuable insight I took away from this read.

I live inside my dictionary (both Urban and Oxford) and my thesaurus and can't imagine the mastery of language that necessary to create works like Shakespeare’s catalog without a linguistic safety net. That revelation alone was worth the price of the book for me and further elevated my profound respect for the masterful word-smiths of antiquity.

** The discussion of the cooperative process of compiling the OED and the monumental undertaking that such creating the OED was fascinating. Tens of thousands of amateur philologists researching and sending Murray’s team slips with words and brief histories of their origin, which were then compiled and processed by the Oxford committee. This was terrific stuff.

I would have loved much more on the 3 items above. Still, the story is well written and I think the author’s regard for the subject matter comes through in the prose. Thus, despite my tarnished expectations, I am going to give the doubt’s benefit to the book and award it 3 stars because it's one I would recommend so long as you go into it knowing that you will get heavy doses of Murray and Minor and only a light serving of etymology.

3.0 stars. Recommended (with caveats).
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,311 reviews120k followers
April 29, 2021
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 well-to-do youth to commit a heinous and addled murder in London, and then to be institutionalized for the rest of his life. The book gives a vivid picture of the times (mid to late 19th century). Winchester has a gift for bringing history to life, and surprising us.

William Chester Minor - image from Wikimedia

Published - September 28, 2008

Most recent update of this review - April 23, 2021

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

A film version of this book was released in 2019 , starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn. It was not warmly received. The reviewer on the Roger Ebert site called it "he latest fiasco in bad movie history." It received a 41-reviewer, 80-audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Top - Mel Gibson as James Murray - Bottom - Sean Penn as William Chester Minor - Image from Catchplay - The boys sure did like those long beards

Reviews of other Simon Winchester books we have read:
-----2021 - Land - Land
-----2018 - The Perfectionists
-----2015 - Pacific
-----2010 - Atlantic
-----2008 - The Man Who Loved China
-----2005 - Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
-----2001 - The Map That Changed the World

There are plenty more Winchester books out there. I have listed only the ones I have read.
Profile Image for Sean Gibson.
Author 6 books5,802 followers
June 10, 2016
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 millennials simultaneously, scratching their virtual heads).

Consequently, it may come as a shock to hear that reading ABOUT a dictionary is quite delightful. Winchester’s chronicle of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary—or, at least, the bizarre story of Dr. William Chester Minor’s contribution to it—is a fascinating story of perseverance, mental illness, and logophilia (which is not, I assure you, a strange proclivity for fornicating with corporate logos). Say what you will about the OED (primary critiques might focus on its overwhelmingly white maleness), it’s an epic achievement in the history of language, and the fact that a not insignificant portion of its content was contributed by a mentally unstable American murderer who thought that mysterious beings snuck into his room at night to violate him and “turn him into a pimp” is one of the more delightful intriguing footnotes you’ll come across.

In short, when Professor James Murray, the man tasked with being the architect of the OED, sent out a call for volunteers to assist the editors in compiling examples of how words were used to help contextualize definitions, it was Minor, already an inmate at an asylum after it was determined he was not mentally fit to be jailed for his crime, who stood first (or, at least, among the first rank) among equals when it came to contributing. A brilliant man with nothing but time (and blood, one might argue) on his hands, Minor diligently scoured pages and pages of texts from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries to find the supporting references that are the OED’s hallmark. That he produced such a prodigious and precise body of work while battling his own inner demons is a testament to his impressive mental faculties.

To illustrate just how powerful those demons were, consider, for a moment—an exceedingly painful moment—that, at one point, in a desperate attempt to reconcile a burgeoning religiosity with past sexual indiscretions and ongoing sex-fueled delusions, Minor, a doctor by trade, used a penknife to CUT OFF HIS OWN PENIS. Now, look—we all have days (those of us with penises (penii?), I mean) where we’re frustrated with the little guy. I, for example, get agitated when I accidentally mix mine up with the garden hose when doing yard work (which happens more frequently than you’d think on account of similarities in length, girth, and greenness). But, still—the idea of it being severed, let alone severing it myself sans anesthesia and using a turn-of-the-century penknife…well, let’s just say that I’d rather read the dictionary.

This is by turns fascinating, grotesque, tragic, and informative—recommended for those who like their historical monographs esoteric and bizarre.
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
701 reviews3,356 followers
January 31, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,137 reviews4,185 followers
March 22, 2019
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 usual for the time. Winchester thinks this might have been frustrating, whereas I imagine the Bard having the lexical confidence of Humpty Dumpty.

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master - that’s all.’”

From Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll (another Oxford connection).

Image: Humpty Dumpty, by Mervyn Peake. (Source.)

The Good

This is a gripping story of triumph over multiple adversities, with touches of Victorian gothic: the promised murder and madness, as well as passion for the project, thwarted titillation, and grim self-harm.

Winchester describes the family background, collaboration, and relationship between the primary editor (Sir James Murray), and American ex-army surgeon (Dr William Minor, incarcerated after he murdered a stranger while deluded), including some surprising parallels in the outwardly very different men.
A relationship… that would combine sublime scholarship, fierce tragedy, Victorian reserve, deep gratitude, mutual respect, and a slowly growing amity that could even… be termed friendship.

The three main characters, Murray, Minor, and the dictionary itself, are vividly portrayed, and the murder victim, George Merrett, is not forgotten - indeed, the book is dedicated to G.M.

The history of word lists, thesauruses, and dictionaries, as well as the actual methods for compiling the behemoth OED, are carefully explained.

Minor was by far the most prolific of the hundreds of volunteers: an accurate, methodical, meticulous researcher, submitting up to twenty slips a day (fewer in summer) for more than twenty years. His contribution is staggering - even if he were not seriously mentally ill. Except that as Winchester points out, if modern psychoactive drugs had been available, maybe Minor would have been less obsessive, less productive.

The Bad

The misleading titles annoy me: “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” in the UK and “The Professor and the Madman” in the US. The name of the village housing the asylum is not very relevant, nor that Minor was previously a surgeon, and the US title is horribly tabloid as well as inaccurate: James Murray was never a professor, nor any sort of university academic. He was an autodidact school-teacher who was employed by Oxford University Press, and knighted in his 70s, and awarded an honorary doctorate the year before he died.

This book has an awkward hybrid tone: neither novel nor biography/history. A particularly egregious example is where Winchester details an important series of incidents, over several pages, before explaining that was what people said at the time because it was more dramatic. Only then does he relate the more probable version. Much later, he indulges in prurient speculation, before confessing “no suggestion exists” that it’s true.

There is disproportionate, dull detail about things not hugely relevant for the main story, such as battles of the American Civil War (but I was reading the US edition, which is 35 pages longer) and some of the processes and conditions of Broadmoor (the asylum).

Several times, Winchester refers to “Doctor Murray”, even though the nearest he got to such a title was an honorary doctorate, the year before he died, aged 78. Sloppy.

Sometimes Winchester is tripped up by the threads of his own embroidery. Because it was annoying me, I noticed he wrote that on 5 November, “darkness had fallen on London soon after half past five” - which is about an hour later than is actually the case. Sloppy, again.

Winchester rattles off a list of delightful obscure words on p85 - and doesn’t define or contextualise a single one! In a book about a dictionary! In a later book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, some of these same words are described as “words [that] were nonsensical, but people used them to give the impression that they were wise and clever”. Others I managed to find definitions of: abequitate (ride away), sullevation (rousing or exciting), commotrix (a female who helps makes things happen), parentate (perform funeral rites, especially for a parent), adminiculation (attestation or corroboration), plus a few compounds whose meaning you can guess.

There is no index (unforgivable in a book of non-fiction) or bibliography (though there is “further reading”).

These aspects of Winchester’s style are presumably a popular feature. I had similar issues with The Man Who Loved China (see my review HERE).

The Indifferent and Odd

Image: Dr Minor among his books. (Illustration from this edition: source.)

The occasional line drawings were a nice idea to give a period feel (though I don’t think they’re especially good).

Each chapter starts with a lengthy definition of a word that is vaguely relevant to that chapter. It would have been nice if they’d been rather more unusual. Reading about a dictionary, I’d have liked to enlarge my vocabulary.

Winchester’s novelistic style makes it readable and immersive, but for some reason, his embellishments often involve anthropomorphised horses ("The horses did their best, their hooves striking sparks from the cobbles as they rushed the victim to the emergency entrance"). The book made me snarky, so the equines kept jumping off the page.

Dr Minor had “distinctively American handwriting”. I wish I knew what that was. Anyone?

Non-Trivial Trivia

Image: An elderly Murray in the Scriptorium. (Source.)

I was left in awe at the compilers of the first OED, as anyone who reads this will be.

For centuries, there were atlases, prayer books, histories, romances, and books of science and art, but no English dictionary as we think of one. Shakespeare probably had Cooper’s thesaurus, and word lists grouped by subject, but not a dictionary.

Dr Johnson made huge strides in lexicography, but the delight of his dictionary is its personal quirkiness, rather than scientific rigour and objectivity. A well-known example: “Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

The bold and unique aim of the OED was to include every single word, however trivial, alphabetically, with etymology, patterns of use, and examples of each meaning from published sources. The OED still shows the meaning and the history of meaning. Words are never removed; merely marked as archaic or obsolete.

Because it was such a huge undertaking, relying on volunteers, it was seen as “a democratic product” - a practice that continues to this day, though perhaps as “crowdsourcing”.

The first OED was 71 years in the making (1857-1928), though sections were published from 1884 (aa to ant).

Meanwhile, the first edition of Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage was published in 1926.

Lexicographers find the letter C “unusually filled with ambiguities and complexities, not least because of its frequent overlaps with the letters G, K, and S”, and the letter T took five years to compile.

The 1928 OED was 12 (or 10, if Wikipedia is correct) volumes, listing 414,825 headwords, with 1,827,306 illustrative quotes. The hand-set letterpress type was 178 miles (the distance from London to the outskirts of Manchester), comprising 227,779,589 letters and numerals - plus spaces and punctuation.

1988 saw the first electronic version of the dictionary.
This book was published a decade later, in 1998.
The OED has been available online since 2000.

For more, see:
OED home
Wikipedia on OED
• Winchester’s 2003 book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is apparently a broader history of the OED.

Mel Gibson Movie

Image: Gibson as Murray and Penn as Minor (Source.)

Completing the dictionary took far longer than predicted, and so with the film of this story. More than 20 years after buying the rights, Mel Gibson’s film is due for release later this year. See imdb here.

I was frustrated by some of the fictional fluff in the book, and probably will be with the film: it was shot in Dublin, rather than Oxford, London, and Berkshire (cheaper).

5* for the story, 3* for the writing = 4*
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,256 followers
April 16, 2014
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 of the wrong writer that book might not have entertained me from start to finish the way Winchester did. Granted the story has its intriguing oddities and the occasional shocking moment, but it's Winchester's ability to dramatize this hundreds-of-years-old story that makes it seem as vivid and catchy as the headlines of the morning newspaper. He is a writer who brings legend to life.

As exciting as I find it, this is a book about making a dictionary and that won't enthrall all readers. It gets an extra nudge up in the star department from me, because this is a book about words and I like words. If you're still reading this, I suspect you do too.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,783 reviews14.2k followers
September 25, 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 different circumstances. One free and the agent in charge of the whole project. The other deemed insane and committed to an asylum. Yet, he was the most prolific reader and sent in the most additions to the dictionary. Brilliant man, but not able to live in society. Fascinsting back story there but some of what he does is cringe worthy.

A entertaining and informative book that I am glad to have finally read. It had been staring at me from my book shelf for quite awhile.
Profile Image for Heather.
292 reviews33 followers
October 13, 2010
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 dramatic and pose lots of questions, and then 80% of the way through the hour, they present actual data and completely undermine that first 80%? That's this book. Why would you do that?!? It makes me feel used. And more to the point, that's not how you construct a story, it's called a gimmick you put there when you can't write. And there's definitely a story here, so it's even worse that he couldn't just write about it and reveal it as it actually happened. Instead, he dishonestly re-tells an old fiction which he then disclaims. If he did all that research, why the hell does he spend three quarters of his book muddling it up with a false story? I'm flabbergasted. (By the way, when *did* the History Channel become so... trendy?)

I read the opener out loud to my husband because it was what made me read the book. Quite intriguing, I thought! Then, with a confused sense of déjà vu, on page 165 I found the exact same scene being retold but with different words and different character quotations. I had to turn back multiple times to be sure (a) I actually read that earlier, (b) it is really the same scene, and (c) that he actually did decide to retell it differently (why!?).

Then on page 171 (literally 77% of the way through the story before the afternotes) came the real blow: "The story of this first meeting is, however, no more than an amusing and romantic fiction." What the EFF? I felt like someone had slapped me.

The final three sections made it all clear to me. This guy thinks simply thinks he's The Man, a literary genius bringing an otherwise forgotten story to the masses:

Postscript: "I first became intrigued by the central figure of this story, the dictionary itself..."

Author's Note: "When I first came upon this story..."

Acknowledgements: "The book that first inspired me to look into this story..."

Oh, I'm sorry, is this book about the author or about the story? I. Can't. Tell.

PS Apparently this genre is called Popular Non-Fiction. I am not a fan -- either give me a good story or give me some intelligent non-fiction. In between doesn't hit the mark.
Profile Image for Kinga.
479 reviews2,255 followers
February 7, 2017
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, then er... repeated that scene word by word in the middle of the book. And then... a chapter or so later, he said it actually never happened. This is a non fiction book!!
Also, Simon Winchester is obviously psychic because he can tell exactly what everyone was thinking and feeling ages ago. The conviction which he states it all with is imperturbable.
It's all forgiven, though, because any book that involves someone cutting their penis off (ESPECIALLY non fiction) can't get anything less than four stars.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,302 reviews22.1k followers
September 4, 2008
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 book. It might have been a book that didn’t quite seem to know how to end – but I even liked that about it, perhaps because I was so delighted by it that I wasn’t sure I wanted it to end.

Winchester is a true story teller. He does explain an awful lot of what might appear to be extraneous material, but I found all of this utterly fascinating anyway, so wasn’t put off in the least. The book smashes together not just the story of a insane murderer – and so providing an interesting excuse to discuss 19th Century definitions of insanity, murder and the laws pertaining to these – but a remarkable range of other ‘events’ from that century and the early years of the next. Central to all this, of course, is also the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and the lives of two central figures in the making of the big dictionary.

But thrown into the pot for good measure are also bits of the American Civil War, the part played by the Irish in that war, a discussion of the nature of lunatic asylums and even an incredibly sexy description of the naked, romping girls of Sri Lanka which I can only assume was paid for by the Sri Lankan Tourist Bureau:

“And there are the girls – young, chocolate-skinned, giggling naked girls with sleek wet bodies and rosebud nipples and long hair and coltish legs and with scarlet and purple petals folded behind their ears, who play in the white Indian Ocean surf and who run, quite without shame, along the cool wet sands on their way back home.”

The story of Minor, the American who is one of the two protagonists is a terribly touching story. (There is an interesting discussion about whether there can be ‘two protagonists’ in any one story – which makes a lovely digression and segue into the preoccupation with words and their meanings, both such important themes of this book.) Minor was a man tortured by demons and caught in a nightmare where only his work in finding quotations of words to be used in the OED offered him any measure of relief.

They say there are no atheists in fox holes – but I have found that the occurrence of the words ‘penis’, ‘penknife’ and ‘self-inflicted wound’ in a single sentence also has me turning to God and even calling out his son’s name in full.

The tale of the Irishman branded on the face with a ‘D’ during the Civil War had much the same effect. We tend to forget how much more ‘humane’ we have become in such a short time – the American Civil War wasn’t all that long ago, but behaviours like those described here, performed against soldiers of your own side, would never be tolerated today … at least, I hope.

I’m quite pleased with my prescience in relation to this book – pleased to have recommended it before having any idea what it would be like or what it would be about - other than the sketchiest of outlines. But prescient or not, I feel much better that I can recommend this wholeheartedly now in the certain knowledge it cannot really fail but to delight.

If you get a chance to listen to the talking book version – read by the author – I would highly recommend that too.
Profile Image for Danae.
363 reviews24 followers
October 22, 2010
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 times). He also seemed to forget where he was headed from time to time, and in going from storyline to storyline (you know--from the "professor" to the "madman") sometimes felt a little jumpy; like he would get going with one and then kindof say to himself, "oh, I should get back to that other thing. Here's as good a place as any..." At any rate, the actual story was quite interesting, even if the author did manage to make 230 pages seem long. I would tentatively recommend it, but remember it's not the best-written book you're going to come across.
Profile Image for Caroline.
506 reviews587 followers
December 8, 2021
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Cecily's marvellous review* has pointed out that Simon Winchester had a 'novelistic approach' to writing it, and I think she is absolutely right. Even so, in spite of Winchester guesstimates and meanderings (or perhaps because of them), I enjoyed it hugely. My one small quibble is that each chapter starts with an entry from the Oxford English Dictionary (at the time called The New English Dictionary.) Noooooo. Not fun. This may be one of the greatest dictionaries in the world, but you only ever want to see the specific words you want to check out, not a bunch of fairly random examples.

Before reading the book I'd heard vaguely about the mentally disturbed surgeon in Broadmoor who contributed to the making of the dictionary. I presumed the story was largely based on sensationalism, and that in reality he'd probably made a few odd minor submissions at most. But it turns out that this was far from being the case. For about 20 years the surgeon - William Chester Minor - worked intensely, gathering quotations that would help define what different words meant. The dictionary took 70 years to complete, and throughout that time the editors of the dictionary relied on an army of volunteers to augment the work being done in the office in Oxford. William Minor was at the forefront of those volunteers.

Part of the book describes the history of English dictionaries, which was interesting and part of the book describes the life of Minor, which for me was even more interesting.

I think this is a wonderful book for all readers. Who doesn't want to learn more about dictionaries? Highly recommended.

* Cecily's review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Diane.
1,081 reviews2,720 followers
August 21, 2013
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 the murderer had access to a library and lots of spare time, he was a valuable contributor to the OED.

If you've never seen the OED, it's an incredible work. In addition to defining a word, each entry traces its usage in history, giving specific examples of its etymology. My library has the full 20-volume set, and sometimes for fun I'll go look up a word just to see its origin.

While the making of a dictionary sounds like a dull story, Winchester has a gift for narrative and highlights the ordeals and obstacles that went into making the first OED, which took decades. It truly was the work of a lifetime.

I highly recommend "The Professor and the Madman" for anyone who loves bookish stories.
Profile Image for Lois Bujold.
Author 167 books37.8k followers
December 11, 2022
Sufficiently reviewed by others -- this was the book I was on my way to read when I got snagged by Winchester's fascinating Needham biography. Rippling high-journalistic style that carried me right along, richly discursive. Some of his other titles are now tugging my eye, but I'm not sure how much of one voice I should read in a row.

Ta, L.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews17 followers
March 6, 2016

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 was then that Murray would finally learn the truth about Minor - that, in addition to being a masterly wordsmith, he was also an insane murderer locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics. The Professor and the Madman is the unforgettable story of the madness and genius that contributed to one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters.

Opening: In Victorian London, even in a place as louche and notoriously crime-ridden as the Lambeth Marsh, the sound of gun-shots was a rare event indeed.

William Chester Minor

Sir Augustus Henry Murray

Henry Sweet. From page 35: '-a notoriously pig-headed. colossally rude phonetician [..] - the figure on whom Bernard Shaw would later base his character Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, which was transmuted later into the eternally popular My Fair Lady (where Higgins was played, in the film, by the similarly rude and pig-headed actor Rex Harrison).

Frederick Furnivall
Profile Image for Lyn Elliott.
702 reviews187 followers
October 6, 2017
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 Winchester pursue the necessary research in earnest.[1] Of the project Ashmead said "we can make lexicography cool".[2] It was Ashmead that persuaded Winchester to call the US edition The Professor and the Madman (over Winchester's objection that Murray was not a professor), saying "No one here knows what the hell a Crowthorne is."[2]
The book was a major success.[3][4][5] Winchester went on to write The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (2003) about the broader history of the OED". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Surg...

The original title conveys something of its slightly off-the-main-track qualities and suits it better, I think.

2017 update. In a recent book club discussion on this, two main areas of interest emerged: the process of assembling and categorizing information for the dictionary, and the nature of treatment for the criminally insane in the nineteenth century. I'm a word freak, and enjoyed discussion of collection and collation, though some were bored by it. I went on to a quick check on the history of Broadmoor, and found that it began with a fairly liberal policy of encouraging inmates to find something positive that interested them, which benefitted Minor, who was helped by the fact that he had access to money.

The Wikipedia article on Broadmoor emphasizes that it is a psychiatric hospital for mentally ill men who have committed crimes, not a prison, but it's clear that the boundaries between hospital and prison are very murky.
Profile Image for Lynne King.
494 reviews676 followers
November 1, 2018
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, assumed it was a private household address.

Dr Minor was so instrumental in the Oxford English Dictionary coming to fruition, even though it wasn't completely finished until a long time after his death. I guess he had time on his hands but he managed to have the use of a second cell and this was crammed full of his books! Can you imagine that!

It's interesting how analysis by Simon Winchester puts Dr Minor's madness down to his participation in the American Civil War and particularly the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. This is a quite remarkable section of the book and so worth reading.

Anyway, highly recommended.

Another remarkable book by the same author is "The Man Who Loved China". Quite an exquisite book.
Profile Image for Velma.
715 reviews63 followers
March 29, 2016
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 bam!, he drops in a wouldn't-it-be-nice-if-that-was-how-it-happened-but-wait-it-didn't! And don’t get me started on his creepy elegy for Dr. Minor: “He was mad, and for that, we have reason to be glad.” Who writes history like this?!?

The one criticism I won’t lob at The Professor and the Madman is the one I’ve read in several GR reviews: fustian language. It’s a book about words, fer cryin’ out loud, of course Winchester is going to trot out his best vocabulary! Me, I picked up: sesquipedalian (cf. fustian), louche, and polymath.

I think I’ll seek out OED, Caught in the Web of Words, the account of the making of the great books by none other than James Murray’s own granddaughter herself, K.M. Elisabeth Murray. She too presented the popular myth concerning the initial meeting between her ancestor and his collaborator, but she is absolved by dint of ignorance concerning the events; Winchester? he had no excuse.
Profile Image for Elyse.
2,602 reviews127 followers
January 26, 2022
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 Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, when people still owned hard copies of dictionaries. lol. Webster's Dictionary, then called the American Dictionary of the English Language, was published in 1828 and the Oxford English Dictionary's final volume, W, was published in 1928. Interesting!

The story of William Chester Minor was the fascinating part of this book. The poor man suffered from some combination of PTSD and schizophrenia, no one knows what exactly he was plagued with, but he had predatory delusions and also took to talking to people who weren't there. And then some (no spoilers)! And because of his illness, he murdered a man in cold blood and was put in an asylum for the rest of his life. But aside from that, he was a brilliant man who thrived on helping James Murray and others compile words for England's first dictionary. His symptoms abated when he was able to focus on reading, marking down words, definitions, and sample quotes and then sending them to London.

James Murray wasn't quite as exciting as his pen pal, whom he did not know was in an asylum when he started receiving word slips for the OED. This is where the lexicography and etymology got a bit boring.

I did love that each chapter began with a word and definition essentially summarizing its contents. I didn't realize the book was written in 1998 until Winchester was narrating the resources he used! And I enjoyed the conversation between Winchester and the then current editor of the OED.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,566 reviews1,895 followers
September 29, 2017
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 essay inside the book that has become over extended.

I'm not sure that the story of this man, a Doctor from the United States and a veteran of the Civil War imprisoned for life following a murder committed (according to his defence at any rate) in moment of madness and his substantial contribution to the Oxford English Dictionary really justifies the amount of detail given. Fans of the OED may well disagree.

To an extent, the story that a man imprisoned and held to be insane was a major contributor to the Oxford English dictionary is less an incredible story and more a patently obvious one - who else but a prisoner would have the time - who else but an insane person would have the drive to devote that time to hunting down the earliest usages of words in early printed books? For me this is overwhelmingly a story about class. A madman, a murderer even of the right social class is excused from having to break up stones in the prison yard or stitching bags for the post office, instead he gets a double cell and is allowed to order obscure books and to spend his days finding good example sentences, no doubt a wiser use of time though one notes that a self directed use of imprisonment was not a privilege extended to all who were incarcerated.
Profile Image for Debbie Petersen Wolven.
257 reviews103 followers
September 1, 2008
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 suffered from schizophrenia or some similar mental illness, and in a moment of insanity shoots an innocent factory worker on his way to work. The subsequent trial became one of the first instances to find someone guilty of the charge, but innocent by reason of insanity. William Chester Minor spends the rest of his life in an insane asylum, the name of which is the basis for the word "bedlam." The story weaves back and forth between a Dickensian London, Civil War battlefields and an acedemic society that had taken on the daunting task of putting together a dictionary that encompassed the English language in its entirety. An appeal went out to the public for learned volunteers to read books and submit words on scraps of paper along with their origin, context and definitions. Tens of thousands of entries came from one person--William Chester Minor. Once the entire background of the man is known, it is not too surprising; he has all of the time in the world on his hands, and hundreds of books at his disposal. It took over 70 years for the OED to be completed. One has to wonder how much longer it would have taken if William Chester Minor had not shot and killed poor George Merritt.

I found this book fascinating. At times the author becomes bogged down in detail, causing the mind to wander a bit, which is why I gave 4 stars instead of 5. Still a must-read for all lovers of words.
Profile Image for Quo.
292 reviews
October 21, 2021
Simon Winchester is an exceedingly gifted story teller, as well as a raconteur if you will, someone who occasionally adds a colorful flourish to some of the characters he has unearthed, people long lost within the farther shadows of history but brought back to life by a writer with a considerable curiosity matched with an ability to make these individuals interesting at the very least and quite fascinating at best. Winchester is not a historian nor a clinical psychologist as some critics at this site would have him be.

In The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary Winchester takes an American surgeon & Civil War veteran turned murderer, William Minor, housed at the Crowthorne Prison, a psychiatric asylum in Berkshire, England and somehow fashions his story into a most compelling mystery tale that also involves the earlier phase of gestation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

What are the chances that a reader would glance at this brief overview & suppose that Dr. Minor's story could be told in a manner that would sell a million+ copies, while gaining 90,000 listings & 5,000+ critical reviews at Goodreads? Perhaps the best description of Winchester's book is to consider it a "linguistic detective story."

Dr. Wm. Minor was from a genteel New England background & a graduate of Yale Medical College, a very sensitive man, "courteous to a fault", someone who read widely, played the flute & painted watercolors but he suffered what today would be called post-traumatic stress while serving in the Civil War, particularly during the devastating stalemate, the "Battle of the Wilderness" in Virginia in 1864, with the forces of Gen. Grant pitted against the those of the Confederacy, commanded by Robert E. Lee.

The author comments that perhaps with this first encounter with war, a "latent madness hovering in the background, was triggered during this battle that might have tested the sanest of men." It appears Dr. Minor's penchant for consorting with prostitutes after his war experience and an earlier experience of doubts about his own ability to control his sexual appetite, scarred the man's sense of self-worth, that coupled with a post-war paranoia, causing him in time to lose his military position.

Alas, after Dr. Minor is discharged from the northern army & spends some years of incarceration in an asylum in Washington, D.C., he finds his way to England & travels about Europe before settling in London. On a night when he feels that he is being stalked in the Lambeth area of London, he uses his service revolver to shoot an innocent local man named George Merrett, the father of 7 children. This quickly lands Dr. Minor in jail where he is soon judged to be suffering from an extreme form of mental illness, causing him to be sent off to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane at Crowthorne.

End of story? Not by half, for Minor has a U.S. army pension & uses his funds to establish himself in prison with a double cell, with one used as his personal library & a place to paint, this due to a particularly benevolent warden. Dr. Minor conducts himself very efficiently & productively as a scholar-in-residence but conducting his studies at an asylum rather than a university.

What grabbed & held my attention at first reading was the way in which The Professor & the Madman then shifts to the circumstances surrounding the incubation & evolution of the OED, before masterfully bringing together James Murray, who is at the helm of the dictionary in its earliest stage and just by absolute chance, Dr. Wm. Minor as a volunteer contributor to the advancement of the OED. It is obvious that the author loves words & finds their origins of great fascination.

Winchester juxtaposes Minor, prior to the murder living in a somewhat seedy area of London near Victoria Station with a meeting of the London Philological Society in the very affluent Mayfair district of the London, with those in attendance involved in the discussion of a plan to at long last create a worthwhile English dictionary. At this point, Winchester digresses to mention that while there were already adequate dictionaries in France, Germany & elsewhere, Great Britain, which saw itself as the vanguard of Christian civilization, had nothing comparable. How was it possible that...
Despite all the intellectual activity going back to the early 17th century, the age of Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, John Donne, Ben Jonson, Izaak Walton, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh & their learned contemporaries, there was no print guide to the English tongue, no linguistic vade mecum for them to consult. Shakespeare's vocabulary was obviously prodigious but how could he be certain that in all cases where he employed unfamiliar words, he was grammatically & factually correct? What prevented Shakespeare, nudging him forward a couple of centuries, from becoming Mrs. Malaprop?
The book then moves on the early days of the laborious creation of just such an essential book & the presence of James Murray & others who toil away to see the OED through to completion many years later. If you are a reader who is not particularly keen on the origins of words, this side-story may seem like a distraction but Winchester believes that the structure of a book is as important if not more so than the characters within or the words used to tell a story, another facet that will not please every reader.

And among the chapter headings are: The Dead of Night in Lambeth Marsh; The Man Who Taught Latin to Cattle; The Scholar in Cell Block Two; Annulated, Art, Brick-Tea, Buckwheat; The Meeting of Minds & The Unkindest Cut. This merger of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and an American surgeon turned murderer represents a confluence of personalities that forms both an excellent mystery story and a formidable tale of memorable personalities.

The Professor & the Madman also serves as a kind of prologue to a later book by Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, a book that is far less enthralling in some ways but which brings to life many of the key players in the formulation of the OED.

To be sure, I am not Mr. Winchester's publicist, though I have met him several times at local book gatherings where he has spoken & read excerpts from his non-fiction works, including one for my village's annual "One Book" event in connection with The Man Who Loved China where Simon had the audience laughing before he had even been formally introduced.

Winchester has a droll wit that could have landed him among the Python clan, had he not chosen to focus first on geology, his area of study at the University of Oxford & then on journalism, before eventually becoming a best-selling author. I suspect that if you enjoy this early book by Simon Winchester, you will also read one or more of the many other books by the author.

*The British version of The Professor & the Madman is entitled The Surgeon of Crowthorne. **There are some nice woodcut-like sketches within my version of the book. ***The 1st inserted photo image within my review is of the author, while the 2nd is Dr. Wm. Minor, taken at the Broadmoor Asylum in the U.K. where he spent so many years.
Profile Image for Cosimo.
429 reviews
March 7, 2019
Voci e Volumi

“Lavorava sodo, immerso nei pensieri e con rapita concentrazione: fece indici e raccolte e collazioni di parole e frasi da ognuno dei suoi libri, finché la scrivania della prigione non fu ingombra dei suoi quaderni, ciascuno contenente un elenco alfabetico generale di parole tratte da tutta la sua eclettica biblioteca, una piccola gemma preziosissima e molto apprezzata”.

Simon Winchester è riconosciuto come uno dei più illustri autori di non-fiction e biografie; formatosi su studi di geologia, fece poi grande esperienza di giornalista e di viaggiatore seguendo differenti e anomale ricerche. Questo studio testimonia il suo amore per le parole e la gratitudine per il loro valore. Philology: amore per il sapere e la letteratura, secondo l'OED, Oxford English Dictionary (1928), opera di inestimabile cultura e di straordinaria storia, come è narrato in queste pregevoli pagine (dove si scopre che il lungo lavoro risale fino al tempo del celebre Samuel Johnson). La genesi del monumentale trattato lessicografico rivela un tesoro prezioso e aneddoti curiosi e poco convenzionali, nel guscio della Philological Society londinese. Il saggio ibrido è la biografia di William C. Minor, un uomo eccentrico e dal destino drammatico, che fu tra i maggiori collaboratori del dizionario, grazie all'amicizia che strinse con il prof. James Murray, docente oxfordiano di origini scozzesi e curatore editoriale del testo, e al tempo stesso la storia di quell'opus britannico che è considerato il principe dei vocabolari. Minor viveva a Broadmoor, un manicomio criminale, condannato per omicidio: nei sobborghi di Londra, aveva ucciso in preda a follia uno sconosciuto, vittima anonima e casuale; era un medico e un erudito e di alta estrazione sociale, dipingeva, era americano ma nato a Ceylon, figlio di missionari, e aveva partecipato alla Guerra di Secessione, prestando servizio nella battaglia di Wilderness (1864); portò con sé in eredità il trauma dell'orrore bellico, dove aveva dovuto marchiare un essere umano, colpevole di diserzione. La sua malattia fu diagnosticata come demenza precoce o schizofrenia paranoide, oggi si parlerebbe forse di disordine da stress post-traumatico; insomma allo stato delle cose, Minor era ”assolutamente e irreversibilmente pazzo”. Venne ricoverato in un ospedale del Berkshire: l'esercito continuò a pagare la sua pensione e quindi potè dedicarsi, vivendo in due stanze, in relativa libertà e pieno di libri, a compilare le voci e le citazioni necessarie al magnifico e generoso corrispondente accademico, come se questo dilettarsi fosse una terapia per la sua anima incontenibile, infiammata e infranta. Protagonisti della sua vita furono quindi il dolore e la conoscenza, e il loro imperscrutabile legame; e poi c'è la storia come materia di cultura europea, che è sempre bene tenere in posizione centrale, perché attiva in una redenzione collettiva. L'Inghilterra vittoriana era terra di grandi visioni e enormi ambizioni, ma era insieme un luogo dove demoni e incubi e paura imperversavano. Colpisce il pensiero, nel lettore, scoprire come una vita segregata possa trasformarsi, con adeguati strumenti e benevole risorse e un'inedita apertura, sebbene fondata in parte sulla finzione, in qualcosa di dialogico, creativo e profondo. Certo, nulla può impedire che la tragicità dell'esistere si sviluppi contagiando ogni personaggio in una vicenda di oscurità e oblio, ma restano a noi come dono cognitivo e emozionale la dolce memoria, il patrimonio linguistico e i frutti prodotti da quell'unica e ammirevole esperienza, che ha costruito qualcosa di eterno.
Profile Image for Amantha.
332 reviews29 followers
August 10, 2016

*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 a teenager.

*Not enough primary sources. There are some good quotes about Minor's condition but Winchester does not cite dates or say where the quotes came from. I would have thought a historian would know better?? Also Winchester goes to all the trouble to describe photos but does not include printed copies of the photos. Why???

*Insinuates that Doctor Brayn - Minor's psychologist after a much more lenient doctor - only revoked Minor's many privileges because he was jealous of Minor's fame with helping find quotes for the OED. I'm sorry - DOCTOR MINOR HAD JUST CUT OFF HIS OWN PENIS. DOCTOR BRAYN WAS NOT JEALOUS. HE WAS TRYING TO KEEP A SELF-HARMING SCHIZOPHRENIC FROM DOING MORE HARM TO HIMSELF. HE WAS DOING HIS JOB. Winchester goes further, though. He had already demonstrated how Minor was in serious decline by this point (I mean did I mention he cut off his own penis????), and then Doctor Brayn took away all his privileges. Winchester, who apparently has no concept of cause and effect, says that Minor's good health began to decline after the evil Brayn jealously did what he did. NO. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Declining health -> cutting off penis -> revoking of privileges =/= cutting off penis -> jealousy on the part of the attending physician -> tragic decline of patient. That's some shady-ass logic right there.

*One would assume that in a book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, every single word would be chosen with deliberate care. So why does Winchester refer to the murdered man George Merret's family as "the widow and her brood"???? If Winchester had bothered to look up the OED definition of "brood" he would have known it refers to animals exclusively and is insulting to call a human family a brood. Shame upon shame.

*Oh and speaking of the widow, I almost forgot this point in the original review, why would Winchester, a supposedly professional historian, bring up a theory that has no backing, no evidence, absolutely nothing to support it other than wild, sensationalised guesswork?? Basically, he wonders if Minor had an affair with Merret's widow. Then he says there's absolutely no evidence this happened or even would have happened. But it could have. Because he (Winchester) says it could have. Therefore it could have. Totally could have. Even though it actually couldn't have. But yeah it TOTALLY could have.

Wait, why am I giving this two stars? Oh, I guess the history of the dictionary itself is pretty intriguing. And Minor and Murray are fascinating people. And the definitions of key words for each chapter is a clever device. But overall, Simon Winchester should be ashamed for the shoddy, sensationalistic, misguided mishmash of facts and conjecture he calls a book.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,784 reviews1,458 followers
February 18, 2023
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 about the tremendous effort that it entailed and finally you will be flabbergasted to hear about the most prodigious contributor! You read in the book description above that he was locked up in an insane asylum, but his life in that asylum will surprise you. This piques your interest in him and keeps you reading to find out more. You want to know everything about him because the story surrounding his life is so bizarre. And you want to know what his illness was, in modern day terms. At the end you find out. Winchester's writing teases you, entices you and he throws in extraneous tidbits about this contributor, the dictionary's editor and words. Yeah, the history of some words is terribly fascinating! A great reading experience. This author has made what could be a dry subject fascinating. And every bit of it is true.

The narration is clear and has a perfect tempo. Not many authors are as capable as Winchester in both writing and then reading their own book!
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,121 followers
August 22, 2016
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. I think the "professor" and the "madman" were interesting stories to fill a chapter each, and then maybe more could have been said. There are hints of other stories in the background of this one.

In some ways this is the story of the (lack of) treatment of mental illness during the time heading up to World War II in the UK. Last year I read several books about a similar topic in New Zealand (books by Janet Frame) and this is just as bleak. Early psychology was the most interesting part of this story, but even with that, it could have been a part of something greater and more complete.

I suspect I'll be in the minority when we discuss it, and may find myself compelled to come back to this review. I'd be happy to be convinced of liking it more than I do.
Profile Image for Darla.
3,522 reviews622 followers
August 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!
Profile Image for Emily.
100 reviews12 followers
November 11, 2007
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.
Profile Image for Cathy DuPont.
456 reviews172 followers
May 26, 2013
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 to’ dictionary until 150 years later when The Oxford English Dictionary (hereinafter referred to as OE) was published in 1928.

In comparison, the OE took 70 years to compile and was published in installments (called fascicles----separate sections of a book) as it was completed. For example, “the first completed volume 1, A-B, “ was finished in 1888 nine years after the project began. When it was republished in its entirety in 1928, it totaled 10 volumes with 414,800 words.

The completion of the project was noticed worldwide with the announcement of the final installment made New Year’s Eve, 1927 in The New York Times with the last word “zyxt, --the second indicative present tense, in local argot, of the very to see---…”-. It was big news in the English speaking world, the completion of the The Oxford English Dictionary. (Note, the final installment, was not yet printed though.)

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Ceylon Women - 1910

Dr. William Chester Minor
The son of an English missionary family, William Chester Minor, was born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). He was a voracious reader who was encouraged to learn as many local languages as possible since his was a traveling missionary family. By age 12 the bright student knew Singhalese, Burmese, some Hindi and Tamil, and some various Chinese dialects. He was well-traveled throughout the Far East and totally integrated into the area.

Take note though, on the beautiful island of Ceylon the nubile young women frolicked mostly naked along the shoreline and he told doctors later that he had “lascivious thoughts” about the young girls early on. It was difficult probably to reconcile his father and step-mother’s strong religious missionary work with naked young women. Then take into account those active hormones bouncing around in his head and body. Oh, my. Poor kid.

Minor had a bright future in front of him being sent to continue his studies in America at the age of 14. He later graduated from Yale as a doctor of medicine and joined the U. S. Army as an officer/surgeon in the Civil War. It’s suggested that some negative experiences in his capacity as a surgeon with the related responsibilities, may have contributed to his mental anguish which turned into full paranoid delusions at the age of 34 when he was allowed to resign from the military and draw a pension for life.

Conflicts as mentioned above were understandably difficult for Dr. Minor to rationalize and it’s suggested that these conflicts may have attributed to his mental anguish which turned into full paranoid delusions. (Disclaimer: I am not qualified to determine what drove Dr. Minor to paranoid delusions.) The delusions though, if anything is good about them, haunted them mostly during the nighttime hours. I’m sure it made sleep a fitful endeavor most of his adult life with nocturnal visitors, sometimes Irish who he was determined were trying to poison him. Others were diluting his bodily fluids as dear Dr Minor had all kinds of crazy thoughts. Insane thoughts, certainly.
But wanting to put his experience in a military ‘insane asylum’ in America behind him, he decided to travel abroad with his first stop London. ( ‘Insane asylums’or ‘lunatic asylums’ were the generally used terms at the time.)

However, had it not been for his psychosis his contribution to the OE may never had happened.

During one period of paranoia, he shot an innocent working man, leaving six children and a grief stricken wife. The result of the death of the innocent man was that Dr. Minor was determined to be insane and placed in the newest ‘lunatic asylum’ in England at the time, Broadmoor just north of London until such time as “…her Majesty’s Pleasure be known.” Meaning, of course, an unspecified period of time.

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Dr. W. C. Minor at Broadmoor

Since Dr. Minor was earlier determined to be insane by the U. S. Army receiving a regular pension, he was wealthier than the average resident of Broadmoor. Dr. Minor was respected by the governor of the institution, and therefore given more privileges including two rooms with book shelves lining entire walls and a paid part-time servant who was a fellow inmate. Due to his lucidity part of the time, he was allowed to obtain books mostly from London and a few friends, the widow of the murdered man, for one would bring him books. The widow forgave him for murdering her husband by the way, and Dr. Minor did contribute through the years to her household expenses.

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Broadmoor Entrance, Berkshire, England

Fortunately for him and the OE he came across a solicitation (found probability in one of his delivered books or newspapers) for volunteers to read and categorize words for the new dictionary which was an idea created by London’s The Philological Society The society is oldest learned society in Great Britain devoted to the scholarly study of language and languages.

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Bird's Eye View of Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor, 1867

The dictionary was originally named A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society. At the time Dr. Minor saw the solicitation, the editor was a well-respected scholar named Professor James Murray.

Professor James Murray
Professor Murray came from a Scot working class family and left school at 14 because they could not afford to further education him. However, the precocious child and then teen had a unique thirst for knowledge and at 17 was appointed headmaster of a school.

His specialty and interest was the English language, words; the history of words, the meaning of words, anything and everything to do with words. As an adult he became a successful scholar and a member London’s The Philological Society so Murray was a natural for the once again open position of editor of the new dictionary.

Professor James Murray photo ProfessorJamesMurray_zps530cc453.jpg
Professor James Murray in the Scriptorium at Banbury Road, 1880s.

Professor Murray placed the advertisement seeking assistance from volunteers who were willing to assist in the reading of books and categorizing words found in thousands of books from centuries past.

The solicitation said that words both common and unique would be written on a 6”X4” piece of white unlined paper with specific quote(s) including page and year of the quote and associated examples of usage.
Responding to the solicitation and after reading the requested books, Dr. Minor sent his first batch of words on the 6”X4” pieces of paper in the spring of 1885.

The Last Card Made by Professor Murray for the Last Entry of the Dictionary

Twenty-seven years after the decision to compile the dictionary, the first installment A to Ant, was published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford. The publication was a very happy event for Professor Murray and he was most curious as to why the most prolific submitter of words, Dr. Minor, was not in attendance at the celebration especially since he lived nearby at Burkshire just west of London.

A romanticized version of the first meeting between them was passed down through the years, but eventually the circumstances surrounding the actual meeting surfaced. The meeting “took place in January 1891, six years earlier than is favored by the romantics…” and was, of course, at Broadmoor.

Both gentlemen were about the same age, slight build and long whiskers. They did not look alike but certainly favored each other.

Their working and genuine mutual respect appears throughout their more than 20 years of correspondence and visiting by Professor Murray over those years.

Professor Murray’s was a labor of love as a lexicographer of The Oxford Dictionary of English. And assistance by the ‘madman’ of Broadmoor, helped the entire effort of the compilation of the respected and famed worldwide dictionary.

Without doubt, author Simon Winchester loves words. I found myself regularly picking up my Kindle which came already downloaded with The Oxford Dictionary of English and to look up words I’ve never seen nor heard. Most of the words I looked up I would consider obscure words, not readily spoken or found in any literature I’ve read my entire life. I think Winchester wants us, as readers, to become more literate, knowledgeable and have better use of the English language. Nothing wrong with that.

An index, though, would have been helpful and although I tried, I had a difficult time not comparing the book to The Story of Ain't which I loved. The story of the publication of Webster’s 3rd Edition of the American Dictionary was an excellent book and yes, it had a wonderful index which I used in writing the review. No index, twice as long to write this review, all things being equal.

Speaking of equal, my preference is Webster’s over Oxford. I haven’t thought about dictionaries this much, ever and now I look at all the tiny information with each entry that I never looked at before.

It's a task, a big task, for the compilation of dictionaries and word lovers only need apply. That would be me (in my imagination, anyhow.)
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