In The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester tells the story of Dr. William C. Minor, a retired American army surgeon found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity in England during the nineteenth century. Minor was sent to an asylum where he pursued his love of reading. He soon learned of a call for volunteers to contribute to the making of what would later become the Oxford English Dictionary. Minor would prove to be among the first rank of all the volunteers who contributed to the making of the great dictionary. Winchester’s history is often tangential, touching on not only the history of the Oxford English Dictionary but also the history of dictionaries and insanity while explaining how Minor came to make such extraordinary contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary from the confines of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.
Simon Winchester has dedicated his book to George Merrett, whose death led to the story that he tells in The Professor and the Madman. On February 17, 1972, George Merrett was murdered while on his way to work during the early morning hours. His murderer was Dr. William C. Minor, a surgeon-captain of the U.S. Army. Minor was found, arrested, and brought to trial. He was found “legally innocent of murder” by reason of insanity. It was explained at trial that Minor felt that poor men, often of Irish descent, were breaking into his room every night to slip a “metallic biscuit” coated with poison into his mouth. He convinced the jury of his insanity and was consequently sent to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Winchester was allowed to read his file, number 742, to produce his account.
The title The Professor and the Madman alludes to two protagonists. Minor is the primary subject of Winchester’s study, and James Augustus Henry Murray has been credited with the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Before he became editor of the great dictionary, Murray spent his childhood and early adult life learning a wide variety of subjects. Although he calculated astronomical movements during his childhood, his true passion was philology, or the study of languages, and Murray went on to learn an impressive number of languages during his early adulthood. However, although Murray’s passion for philology led to his work as editor in that field (not to mention attempts to teach cattle to respond to Latin commands) he is best remembered as the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Winchester attempts to help his audience realize how impressive the Oxford English Dictionary’s creation is by providing a brief history of dictionaries. Although dictionaries are largely taken for granted in the twenty-first century, they are actually a recent creation; no English dictionary was available to William Shakespeare. By 1225, there was a Latin collection of words, and by the sixteenth century, A Shorte Dictionarie for Yonge Beginners was put out, though it arranged words by subject rather than alphabetical order. Other early dictionaries focused on difficult words or attempted to standardize the English language.
By the eighteenth century, many of England’s most acclaimed writers, including Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift, had begun to call for a more comprehensive English dictionary that, Winchester explains, would give the language “greater prestige both at home and abroad.” Perhaps more importantly, they felt that the language had achieved a sort of perfection that would only be degraded if the meanings of words were not stabilized. If the British were busy finding ways to calculate longitude for navigation, they should also have a stable language to spread during their travels.
The most famous dictionary of the eighteenth century was Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the...
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