A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
by Simon Winchester
This is a book I read because my mother once recommended it. And I'm glad she did. At first glance I thought it might be dry reading, but that's not so at all. The Professor and the Madman is about a group of men (in particular Professor James Murray) who organized the enormous task of compiling definitions for the Oxford English Dictionary, starting in 1857 (the first edition took seventy years to complete). Before reading this book I had no idea what kind of effort went into creating dictionaries, or who would try and tackle such a task. Reading about it was fascinating. Not just for the love of words and language, and the curious details about life in Victorian England, but also the more sensational and intriguing aspects of the story. The book opens with a murder scene in London, a brutal act committed by William C. Minor who was later deemed insane and committed to an asylum where he remained for some thirty years. What does this have to do with the making of a dictionary? It turns out that the editorial team for the dictionary appealed to the public for word submissions (which had to include examples of usage quoted from books, and their source), and a staggering amount came from Minor, from behind the walls of the insane asylum. It's almost hard to believe this story is true. Some other book bloggers have written about this one in more detail than I (and it's been four years since I read it, so not everything is crystal in my memory) so check out some of the links below!
Rating: 4/5 ........ 242 pages, 1998
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