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'The Professor And The Madman' by Simon Winchester

A definitive page-turner about the creation of a dictionary

Sunday, November 29, 1998

By Jim White, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

 
 

The Professor And The Madman

By Simon Winchester

HarperCollins
$22.00

   
 

A novel about the creation of a dictionary doesnít exactly sound like a rousing page-turner. But the subtitle makes it a little clearer: ĎĎA Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.íí And brings it somewhat closer to the fascinating story that it is.

Winchester carefully weaves together the stories of British professor James Murray, editor of the OED project, and Dr. William Chester Minor, an American who was a U.S. Army surgeon in the Civil War, and the strange symbiotic relationship they developed in a 20-year period during the 70 years it took to create the 12-volume dictionary - a project that began in 1857.

Minor, who wound up in England after the war, nursing a mind deteriorating rapidly from unknown causes, was convicted of murdering an Englishman in London, found insane and sent to the Asylum for Criminal Lunatics at Broadmoor (a somewhat less than politically correct approach to naming institutions, to be sure).

Murray, a former schoolmaster and bank clerk, wound up at the helm of an ambitious project to catalog all the words in the English language for the first time. Minor turned out to be one of Murrayís most accomplished contributors.

Winchesterís tale is skillfully crafted using documents from Minorís confinement, the U.S. Army and recollections of distant relatives, including Minorís hapless victim, whose death sparked the entire episode.

The author recounts and then rebuts as journalistic hyperbole the somewhat apocryphal first meeting between the two men in Minorís two-room suite at the asylum, where he was allowed to establish his own library and pay other inmates to do menial work for him.

The story is full of incredible details: How Minorís victimís widow brought him books at the asylum and possibly became his lover; how Minor focused so intensely on contributing definitions to the dictionary while at the same time believing that beings would emerge from beneath his floors at night to torment him; how scholars struggled for decades to wrestle the language into a manageable reference work.

Winchester moves easily from place to place and time to time in the telling, bringing all the disparate pieces together into an easy-reading story with more passion and drama than most fictional tales could hope to muster.

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