Jan 10, 2009

The Professor and the Madman

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

More opinions at:
Two Weeks Notice
Rebecca Reads
Reading Blog
Sophisticated Dorkiness


  1. Anonymous1/10/2009

    I so enjoyed this book. Simon Winchester writes excellent anecdotes. He wrote another book about the OED called (IIRC) The Meaning of Everything. It wasn't quite as good as this one, but still full of interesting information.

  2. Pretty good memory for 4 years ago. I read this one 3 years ago and am foggy on the details. I also read this one because my mom recommended it, and I really enjoyed the book. Too bad I lent it out to a friend and never saw it again.

  3. Anonymous1/10/2009

    I've had this on my to-read list for ages - I really should get to it soon.

  4. I read this several years ago and was enthralled. I'd definitely read it again.

  5. I read this back in high school (omg! that means it was at least five years ago! *minor freakout*) and found it just fascinating. Like you, I think it's almost unbelievable. :)

  6. Anonymous1/12/2009

    This has been on my TBR list forever, too. It sounds great, it just never seems to make it to the top.

  7. I have trouble writing a review 4 WEEKS after I read a book, let alone four years! Wow! I'm impressed at your amazing retention!

    This actually sounds very cool. Without ever knowing about this book I have wondered about what it took to compile all the words and definitions in the dictionary. Kinda mind boggling, no??

  8. Well, it was a pretty memorable book! I did jot some brief notes down when I read it about my general impressions, and that helped jog my memory a little.

  9. So glad to see you liked this! It's next on my to be read list!!


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