- The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (review)
- Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America
- Dictionary Society of North America
- Number 21, 2000
- pp. 160-168
- View Citation
- Additional Information
1 60Reviews The Professor and the Madman: A Tale ofMurder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. By Simon Winchester. New York: HarperCollins. 1998. xvi + 242. $22.00 Ti 1 he Professor and the Madman is one of a recent spate of small books which, by dint of providing an immensely entertaining read, have familiarized a mass readership with some relatively unknown or unglamorous corner of knowledge. The story of an American surgeon's involvement with the compilation of the OxfordEnglish Dictionary (OED) , which might not at first glance seem a promising topic on which to write a bestseller, looks less odd when we consider some of the other byways illuminated by similar books in recent years: the commercial exploitation of cod, for example, or the natural history of the tulip, or the search for a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, or the invention of the chronometer. There appears to be a sly nod at the last of these in Simon Winchester's book, in the course of a survey of various signs of the standardizing impulse which flourished in the eighteenth century, and which also bore lexicographical fruit in the form of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary: "[W] hat, indeed, of the precise measurement of longitude, so vital to seamen ?" (92). As luck would have it, what Dava Sobel's Longitude is toJohn Harrison and the chronometer, Winchester's book is fast becoming for William Minor and the OED: more readers are learning about each subject from these authors' books than from any other source. The similarity now extends to plans for both books to become movies, which will of course magnify this effect even further. In fact, the story of Dr. Minor, the madman of the title, turns out to be a tale worth telling. The bare facts are these: William Chester Minor was born in 1834 in Ceylon, the son of Congregationalist missionaries from New England ; he graduated in medicine from Yale in 1863, and joined the Union forces as a surgeon in the Civil War; following various traumatic war experiences , including having to brand an Irish mercenary for desertion, elements of paranoia began to appear in his behavior, and he was in due course institutionalized ; in 1871 he was released, and arrived in London at the start of what was hoped would be a recuperative year traveling in Europe; however, only three months after his arrival he shot and killed a man under the delusion that he was one of the many Irishmen that Minor believed were out to get him; he was found not guilty of murder on grounds of insanity, and was consigned to the new asylum at Broadmoor, in Berkshire; some years later, news reached him of the OED, and of the appeal for voluntary help launched in 1879 by its then editor James Murray, and he undertook to read and excerpt quotations from the rare books he liked to collect; he thereafter maintained a close working relationship with Murray and the Dictionary over the next two decades, until failing health obliged him to stop work; he returned to America in 1910, and remained in custody until his death in 1920. Regular readers of Dictionaries will be familiar with Dr. Minor's story from an article by Elizabeth Reviews161 Knowles (1990), although the new book contains much new biographical information . A detail not mentioned in either of these places which has recently come to my notice is the fact that Minor worked on the 1864 edition of Webster 's Dictionary, "in the departments of Geology, Natural History, &c," in collaboration with the Yale mineralogistJames Dana: I hope that Simon Winchester will be able to report on this earlier lexicographical episode in a future edition of his book. Interesting as Minor's life may be in its own right, this brief summary hardly suggests that, lexicographically, his story is likely to be an exceptional one. For a start, the number of people known to have provided quotations for the first edition of the OED runs well into four figures; many of the contributors were active for longer than Minor, and many made a numerically larger contribution. (The latter list is headed by one Thomas...