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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

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

Reviewed: January 30, 2006
By: Simon Winchester
Publisher: HarperCollins Canada
242 pages, $18.95

Imagine when there was no such thing as a dictionary. Imagine the effort it would have taken to produce the first really good one. A typical paperback dictionary these days might list 70,000 words, but there are more than 100 times that many in the language, and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is generally accepted as the place where you find them all.

It’s up to twenty volumes long now, but the original, with 414,000 words, filled twelve volumes and took 70 years to produce.

Simon Winchester’s engaging short history is not the story of the entire work. He would revisit that theme in 2005 with The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. This recently reissued 1998 book does cover a number of related topics in brief.

There is an outline of the history of English dictionaries, which actually begins before the well known 18th century work by Dr. Samuel Johnson, though his contained some important features that would inform the makers of the OED, who began their work about a century later.

In addition, Winchester has devoted some space to an account of the methods used to create the OED: the indexing, the sorting, the listing of multiple meanings and, importantly, the use of quotations to provide context for the use of the words. This last is something that all the better smaller dictionaries still use to some extent, especially if a word is difficult or multifaceted in its meanings.

Winchester illustrates this very simply, by beginning each of the book’s eleven chapters with a complete definition from the original OED. The first chapter, which relates a Victorian era story of a killing straight out of the pages of a penny dreadful novel (except that it is true), is prefaced by the word “murder”.

But this book is mostly about two men, who they were, what they did and what their relationship was in the context of the OED itself.

Professor James Murray was the greatest editor of the first edition of the OED, the man who took a stalled project begun in 1857, revived it, organized it, and carried it so far during his lifetime that only time itself was needed to make it complete. He is a fascinating, largely self-taught individual who mastered many languages and was captured by the quest for the origins and meanings of words.

The other fellow was an insane American army surgeon, Dr. William Charles Minor, whose experiences during the American Civil War unhinged him. While staying in London he shot a man in the mistaken belief that the poor fellow was one of the Irish assassins he was convinced were out to get him. As a result of his delusions, he was remanded to the care of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, and it was from his two room quarters in this place that he assisted in finding definitions and quotations to buttress the entries for some 10,000 words in the OED over a period of several decades.

Winchester fleshes out the lives of both men, relates some of the myths that have grown up around their relationship, and then shows what it actually was. He follows each of them from their earliest years to the ends of their lives, as well as following the life of the dictionary project. It is the interweaving of these three threads that makes this such an interesting book. It was as much a page turner as any piece of fiction I have read lately, and yet it was also a solidly done piece of historical writing.

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