The Professor and the Madman

A friend ignored the height of my stack of books awaiting reading time and the length of my “Books to Read” list. His rave review brought me to The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. I would have to squeeze it between books that had finishing deadlines. The book was originally published in England in 1998 as The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness, and the Love of Words. While both titles are accurate, I think the American title is more fitting.

Two parallel stories chase each other through the book. The first lies with the madman, Dr. W. C. Minor, beginning with his committing of a murder and continuing with his consequent lifelong commitment to a mental institution for an “innocent by reason of insanity” conviction. Making the crime even more grievous, the murdered man left behind seven children and a pregnant wife, The second story is the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) headed by the professor, Dr. James Murray. As brilliant as he was crazy, Dr. Minor became a major contributor to the dictionary quotations illustrating the words in the its volumes.  

Weirdness abounded in the special treatment Dr. Minor received in his institutional confinement, in the long period of years in which he and Dr. Murray corresponded on a regular basis without any suspicion on the professor’s part of the insanity, and in the amazing way that Dr. Minor’s delusions and intellect traveled a parallel upward path.  

Each chapter begins with a definition from the OED of a word that presages the part of the story to come. I quickly began to project what the word would foreshadow. Sometimes I was right!I promised “Not much ‘Rithmetic” in this blog, but this entry calls for some OED numbers.

•    70 years almost to the day from beginning to end to make “the big dictionary”

•    12 volumes

•    227,779,589 letters and numbers, not counting spaces and punctuation

•    178 miles – total length of hand-set type

•    414,825 words defined

•    1,827,306 illustrative quotations

•    Scores of thousands of quotations provided by madman William Minor.

Along with weirdness came fascination. I would be hard pressed to tell if the story of the dictionary or the story of the people who formed it was the most interesting. I can tell you, even if your stack of books and to-read list matches mine, it will be worth it to squeeze in The Professor and the Madman.