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Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Professor and the Madman - Simon Winchester

Read for the TBR Lite 2009 Reading Challenge.

I’m enough of a word geek to be familiar with the Oxford English Dictionary, but I admit to knowing next to nothing about its history. Considering the scope of the dictionary, it’s not surprising that it has a long and interesting story behind it.

The OED was a first of its kind conception of a dictionary, that used quotations to illustrate the meaning and historical change to meanings for every single word in the English language. Considering the sheer number of words, and the number of books written in the English language over its history, it makes sense that the work of finding these quotations was done by a largely volunteer group, recruited through magazine ads.

This book concerns one of the most prolific of these volunteers, Dr. William Chester Minor, who had been a doctor in the American Civil War, but at the time of the OED’s creation was an inmate at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, after he committed a murder in London. Dr. Minor came from a wealthy family, and also had a pension from the Army, and was therefore granted certain liberties in the asylum, most notably being able to acquire a fairly large and diverse library. Because of the books available to him, and a great deal of free time, he was able to devise a system of keeping track of what words were located in which books, and was therefore able to give the OED editors quotations for the words they were working on at that moment.

James Murray, the chief editor of the dictionary, did not at first realize he was dealing with a lunatic, but did eventually find out Dr. Minor’s history, and became a regular visitor at the asylum. The two men even developed a peculiar kind of friendship, based on their mutual love of language. The twenty years that Dr. Minor participated in the dictionary were the most stable in his life. He probably suffered from schizophrenia, and it’s interesting to think that while he could have lived a more normal life with today’s medical advances, it was the lack of those advances that put him in the position to contribute so positively to an important literary work. It’s an interesting story, and definitely good reading for any word geek out there.

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