Biography, History, Language

Book Recommendation: The Professor and the Madman

It’s a relatively short tome (about 250 pages), written by British journalist and author Simon Winchester. It tells, in extremely readable prose, the fascinating story of the two men most important to the publication of the world’s greatest dictionary, whose first volume (A-ANT) was published 139 years ago today, on February 1, 1884.

Two more unlike fellows could scarce be found the world over.

Professor James Murray, who spent over four decades on the project and who died before the last–twelfth–volume was published in 1928, was a Scottish lexicographer and philologist with a side interest in electricity whose friend, Alexander Graham Bell, often referred to as the “grandfather of the telephone.”  As the editor of a new project–the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)–whose aim was to encompass almost a thousand years of the spoken and written English language, Murray soon found it necessary to give up his teaching job and devote himself full-time to the challenge.

Early in his work, Murray put out a call for volunteers to send in, on individual slips of paper, examples of English words and their definitions, together with an example of their use (an early example of “crowd-sourcing,” if ever there was one).  By the time the project was well under way, the hundreds of thousands of slips of paper were organized and catalogued in several buildings, with a new one having to be constructed every time the last one ran out of space.

Probably the most energetic of the early volunteers was William Chester Minor, of whom Murray once said “we could easily illustrate the last four centuries [of language] from his quotations alone.”

Largely unknown at the time was that Minor, an American Civil War army surgeon and keen lexicographer himself, was a patient in a British hospital for the criminally insane, having shot a man he mistakenly believed was about to rob him.  He had moved to England after the War, having gotten into a spot of bother relative to his mental instability and rather unsavory life in the States.  The change of venue didn’t help much, though, and he resumed his delusional and libertine ways, culminating in a paranoid episode in which he shot George Merrett, the father of six, with a seventh on the way.  He was ultimately adjudged insane, and sent to Broadmoor, where he lived out his days in relative comfort, on his army pension, and where he could indulge in the one love that never failed him, that of his considerable library, from whence, once he learned of the OED project, he obtained the information and examples for the tens of thousands of slips he submitted to Murray.

The OED is today regarded as the definitive historical record of the English Language.  A second edition was published in twenty volumes in 1989, and a CD-version was released in 1992.

Work continues on a projected third edition, with no publication date yet announced.

I am the proud owner, thanks to my father, of a micrographically produced 2-volume edition of the 1933 printing, published in 1971, and titled The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Each page contains four pages of the original, with reduced font size to fit.  It came with an excellent Bausch and Lomb magnifying glass, which I find I no longer need, because my eyesight is actually improving with age, and I don’t need glasses for close work such as needlepoint, cross-stitch, or deciphering the tiny type–an unexpected–and rare–benefit of growing old!

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester, Harper, 1998, 256 pages: $12.99 hardcover, other formats available


5 thoughts on “Book Recommendation: The Professor and the Madman”

  1. We have the compact version as well – a bargain I found at a used book shop (the magnifying glass wasn’t with it, but we have others). I had an English teacher in high school who was found of handing out photocopies of various entries from our school’s full sized version, and remember in particular the entry on “Thing”, of special relevance as we were reading Hamlet at the time and the teacher wanted to examine Hamlet saying “The play’s the thing… (etc.)”. 9 pages that entry ran, if my memory serves.

    Never read the Professor and Madman, though I remember it well from over 20 years ago when I worked at a Barnes and Noble. It was one of those rare popular history books that was always kept in stock, and seemed it always would be (most such books have a retail half-life of just a few years unless the author is exceptionally lucky, exceptionally good at PR, or exceptionally good at chunking out the sorts of books that the zeitgeist is then devouring – Stephen Ambrose for example). Seems rather fitting.

    Of course you’ll never find the OED itself at any retail outlet, though you might occasionally find some condensed offshoot under the “Oxford” brand. But even those truncated ones tend to be better than the flighty and ever-political Merriam Webster, which ought to be more honest and simply put out an Orwell edition.

    1. LOL. Yes, the Cambridge English Dictionary can give Merriam-Webster a run for its money these days, I think.

      I love perusing the OED. You can open it to just about any page and find something interesting. (This very moment’s example would be “dorty,” a word that means “sulky or ill-humoured,” with a reference to a Scottish proverb from 1776: “The dorty dame may fa’ in the dirt.”)

      I know what you mean about the strange popularity of certain authors or subjects at certain times. I was talking with my stepdaughter and granddaughter last night about the spate of remarkably popular history and science TV shows from the 70s–Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” (which started the conversation), Kenneth Clarke’s “Civilisation,” and James Burke’s “Connections,” just to name a few. I miss them. They were everywhere, watched by all sorts, and it was possible to have actual water-cooler conversations about real ideas in the days before the advent of “Reality TV,” whose only purpose–as far as I can see–is to be so bizarre, titillating, prurient, and useless that no normal person would waste their time on it.

      I ordered “Civilisation” a couple of months ago on DVD. Must get it out and have a look.

      1. I also picked up, a few weeks ago, a second-hand copy for a reasonable price (under $15) of a book I’ve wanted for several years: “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” It was prohibitively expensive when it came out and this is the original British Museum hardback, although not a first edition. I suppose one can debate the selection of objects–why this or that was included, or this or that was left out–but, like the dictionary, I find it rewarding to have a “random-access” book, one that I can open to any chapter and have a little read about something it might be good to know more about. Sometimes it’s nice to get stuck into a nice long novel, or an excellent, complex history book; others, it’s nice to just dip one’s toes in the water and see if it’s something worth pursuing at greater length.

      2. I have found Connections (or at least a few episodes of it, as well as The Day the Universe Changed – a variant on it also by Burke), on Youtube, and enjoy pulling them up. However, many of Burke’s preconceptions have not aged well, and he cannot help beating the drum for “Religion is toxic, and look how clever we are to have escaped it” – a sentiment which probably reached peak smugness circa 2006, and which has retreated from view as everything from vague “spirituality” to outright devil worship has come roaring back (Jordan Peterson’s circle of friends have had much to say on the “re-enchantment” of the world recently).

        But aside from that particular aspect of Burke aging poorly (and really, I don’t judge him for it – he was simply caught in the moment like so many of the people he himself unabashedly admired in his stories), his series are still magnificent and compelling works of art and story, and I wish his way of piecing together the stories of modernity was better appreciated. I have had a couple of my girls sit through episodes because Burke’s storytelling is simply wonderful, and he shows that history is far more than “one damned thing after another”. We’re all linked together in ways many of us never realize, and Burke’s giddy curiosity and good humor are the way history should be taught.

      3. That History of the World through 100 objects had a companion podcast at the time it came out, where they would discuss many of the entries. It was wonderful.

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