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

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Harper Collins, Aug 26, 1998 - Biography & Autobiography - 256 pages
1831 Reviews

Mysterious (mistîe · ries), a. [f. L. mystérium Mysteryi + ous. Cf. F. mystérieux.]
1. Full of or fraught with mystery; wrapt in mystery; hidden from human knowledge or understanding; impossible or difficult to explain, solve, or discover; of obscure origin, nature, or purpose.

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story--a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray's offer was regularly--and mysteriously--refused.

Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor--that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane--and locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history. With riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary.


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I love Winchester's breezy style of writing. - Goodreads
Tedious. Interesting premise. - Goodreads
Great book, well-researched and fascinating. - Goodreads
Surprisingly easy to read and enjoyable. - Goodreads
Sad ending for the Madman, but a good read. - Goodreads
Educational and entertaining. - Goodreads

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

User Review  - Bob R Bogle - Goodreads

I picked this book up in a used book store anticipating a nice, generally easy read concerning a fairly arcane project: the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. According to its numerous blurbs ... Read full review

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

User Review  - Diana - Goodreads

The book describes the two men who helped created the Oxford Dictionary, James Murray and Dr. WC Minor. The author uses vivid details to grab the reader's attention in the beginning and throughout the ... Read full review

All 8 reviews »


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Page 95 - A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.
Page 99 - I am not yet so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.
Page 95 - OATS [a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people], — Croker.
Page 88 - An universal etymological English dictionary; comprehending the derivations of the generality of words in the English tongue...
Page 142 - A Relation of Some Yeares Travaile, Begunne Anno 1626. Into Afrique and the greater Asia, especially the Territories of the Persian Monarchic : and some parts of the Orientall Indies, and lles adiacent.
Page 56 - ... battle. Forest fires raged; ammunition-trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration; the wounded, roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along, with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing. It was as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of earth.
Page 93 - For as to the pretence of fixing a standard to the purity and perfection of any language, while the state of the people remains unchanged and unmix'd with others, is utterly vain and impertinent, because no language as depending on arbitrary use and custom, can ever be permanently the same, but will always be in a mutable and fluctuating state; and what is deem'd polite and elegant in one age, may be accounted uncouth and barbarous in another.
Page 115 - The Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, used as an asylum for the reception and cure of mentally deranged persons; originally situated in Bishopsgate, in 1676 rebuilt near London Wall, and in 1815 transferred to Lambeth. Jack or Tom o
Page 205 - Murray's definition, which is, that a diagnosis is " a determination of the nature of a diseased condition, identification of a disease by careful investigation of its symptoms and history, also an opinion formally stated, resulting from such investigations.
Page 30 - ... they call it) from puppets. Their unvarying intensity of facial expression, impossible for living actors, keeps the imagination of the spectators continuously stimulated. When one of them is speaking or tumbling and the rest left aside, these, though in full view, are invisible, as they should be. Living actors have to learn that they too must be invisible while the protagonists are conversing, and therefore must not move a muscle nor change their expression, instead of, as beginners mostly do,...

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About the author (1998)

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa. Those books were New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. In 2006, Mr. Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by her Majesty the Queen. He lives in Manhattan and in western Massachusetts.

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