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

Liz sent me a clipping from The New York Times Book Review recommending this book, which turned out to be a happy synchronicity in two ways: one, I had had the book on my shelves for years, still bearing a sticker from the library where I worked when I first met Liz. Two, I stuck that clipping, that slip of paper, in the book as a reminder, and the book turns out to be in some ways about little slips of paper, which I had learned by the time I found the clipping in its pages again. Good work as ever, Liz.

Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman is a fine example of creative nonfiction writing of the less-personal kind: not memoir, but history; but history told with a novelist’s eye. This Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is for word-fans, of course – that OED mention has pulled them in – but also for readers who enjoy an absorbing historical narrative.

The Professor, here, is the Scottish Dr. James Murray, teacher and philologist who was eventually recruited to take on a formidable role: the editorship of a project of such enormity that most thought it could not be done. Here, Winchester backs up to give us a quick history of lexicography (Samuel Johnson figures centrally). The new project attempted something unprecedented: to define every word in the English language, not only those deemed “difficult” or somehow deserving of promotion; to describe rather than prescribe how they were used; and to record the history of each word, using quotations from written material, including the identification of each word’s first entry in written history. The philologists and word-nerds who undertook this goal repeatedly declared that they thought it would take a handful of volumes or a handful of years; it would take more than seventy years to publish its first “complete” version in twelve volumes, which of course needed immediate supplementing and updating. Dr. Murray was the editor and boss of this project, which would become the OED, in one of its earliest incarnations (the one that stuck).

That’s the title’s Professor. And then there was Dr. William Chester Minor, an American who spent his childhood in Ceylon with missionary parents, then trained as a medical doctor at Yale, served as a surgeon for the Union army in the American Civil War, and was later institutionalized for his delusions. Enjoying a little freedom in London in 1872, those delusions convinced him that he was pursuing one of the bad men who abducted and molested him at night, which is how he came to shoot and kill an impoverished local brewery worked named George Merrett, who left behind a pregnant wife and seven small children. For this, Minor would be “detained in safe custody… until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known.” He spent nearly the next fifty years of his life in an asylum in Broadmoor, just outside of London, “a certified criminal lunatic.”

Winchester offers that Minor’s life was saved, in a sense, when he came across an advertisement from Murray, seeking volunteers to read… well, everything, and search out the quotations needed to write what would become the Oxford English Dictionary. Minor happily had some spending money (his family was well-off, and he drew a pension from his military service), and the good graces of the asylum leadership at Broadmoor let him build a prodigious library of rare and old books. Aside from these he had nothing but time, and created his own system of indexing that changed the way he was able to serve Murray and the OED. Over decades, he would serve as one of the most prolific volunteer contributors to the project, sending in tens of thousands of little slips of paper with words and quoted texts carefully penned. He and Murray would build a friendship, and together they built a book. It is Winchester’s conclusion that while Merrett’s murder was tragic, and Minor’s life another tragedy, they were both necessary to contribute to something of a miracle in lexicography.

Liz’s clipping from the NYTBR (by Charlie Savage) calls The Professor and the Madman a “mashup of erudition and melodrama,” and I think that is a fine description. There is plenty of hearty history and lexicographic detail here, which I loved. There is also a definitely flair for the dramatic, and there were a few points where I didn’t love Winchester’s editorial tone. (A laugh at the expense of one dictionary reader and then “one of the women readers” – why that detail? – or a snobbish note about a slum. He could be a bit creepy about the naked girls on the Ceylon beaches. I didn’t care for the way he characterizes the stepmother as “so often the cause of problems for male children.”) There’s no question that this is a novelistic history, in the spirit of Erik Larson or Jon Krakauer – who were among my first experiences with creative nonfiction. By novelistic I mean that the storytelling is clearly meant to be entertaining: an eye for the colorful detail, a leaning into suspense, even a bit of a red herring here or there. It’s great fun. When Samuel Johnson is “damned” as “a wretched etymologist,” I cackled.

Chapters open with dictionary definitions of a word that will figure in that chapter’s narrative. This was a fun way to keep the OED in our sights and a little history in our perspective. There were a number of words and phrases in the text that I had to go look up, too: manqué, astrakhan, vade mecum, pudicity, rebatos, Rhinegrave, perukes, nostalgie de la boue, tocsin, rebarbative, swingeing… and you know I always enjoy that part of my reading, too. (Haven’t convinced my students yet that it’s fun to learn new words, but I’m working on it.) So again, is this a book for word-nerds and OED fans? Emphatically yes; but not only for them (us). It’s also just a ripping tale, a bit sensational and pathos-ridden. If you like dramatic historical fiction, this one is for you, too.

Not perfect, no, but enormous fun.


Rating: 7 catchwords.
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