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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary Paperback – Jul 5 2005

3.9 out of 5 stars 363 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd; unknown edition (July 5 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060839783
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060839789
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 1.7 x 20.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 227 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars 363 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #27,007 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

From Amazon

When the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary put out a call during the late 19th century pleading for "men of letters" to provide help with their mammoth undertaking, hundreds of responses came forth. Some helpers, like Dr. W.C. Minor, provided literally thousands of entries to the editors. But Minor, an American expatriate in England and a Civil War veteran, was actually a certified lunatic who turned in his dictionary entries from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Simon Winchester has produced a mesmerizing coda to the deeply troubled Minor's life, a life that in one sense began with the senseless murder of an innocent British brewery worker that the deluded Minor believed was an assassin sent by one of his numerous "enemies."

Winchester also paints a rich portrait of the OED's leading light, Professor James Murray, who spent more than 40 years of his life on a project he would not see completed in his lifetime. Winchester traces the origins of the drive to create a "Big Dictionary" down through Murray and far back into the past; the result is a fascinating compact history of the English language (albeit admittedly more interesting to linguistics enthusiasts than historians or true crime buffs). That Murray and Minor, whose lives took such wildly disparate turns yet were united in their fierce love of language, were able to view one another as peers and foster a warm friendship is just one of the delicately turned subplots of this compelling book. --Tjames Madison --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The Oxford English Dictionary used 1,827,306 quotations to help define its 414,825 words. Tens of thousands of those used in the first edition came from the erudite, moneyed American Civil War veteran Dr. W.C. Minor?all from a cell at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Vanity Fair contributor Winchester (River at the Center of the World) has told his story in an imaginative if somewhat superficial work of historical journalism. Sketching Minor's childhood as a missionary's son and his travails as a young field surgeon, Winchester speculates on what may have triggered the prodigious paranoia that led Minor to seek respite in England in 1871 and, once there, to kill an innocent man. Pronounced insane and confined at Broadmoor with his collection of rare books, Minor happened upon a call for OED volunteers in the early 1880s. Here on more solid ground, Winchester enthusiastically chronicles Minor's subsequent correspondence with editor Dr. J.A.H. Murray, who, as Winchester shows, understood that Minor's endless scavenging for the first or best uses of words became his saving raison d'etre, and looked out for the increasingly frail man's well-being. Winchester fills out the story with a well-researched mini-history of the OED, a wonderful demonstration of the lexicography of the word "art" and a sympathetic account of Victorian attitudes toward insanity. With his cheeky way with a tale ("It is a brave and foolhardy and desperate man who will perform an autopeotomy" he writes of Minor's self-mutilation), Winchester celebrates a gloomy life brightened by devotion to a quietly noble, nearly anonymous task. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Peter Matson. BOMC selection.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I like reading the occasional historical fact (rather than historical fiction) "novelette," and The Professor and the Madman was definitely easy to get through. One can learn much from books like this, particularly the way normal people lived their day-to-day lives in a certain time and place.
A few things I liked about this book:
1. One will assuredly learn a thing or two about the English language, in reading it. You will learn some obsolete words, the origin of some words, and just get a refresher of other, more common words. Each chapter begins with a dictionary entry of a particular word, some very normal words, some more exotic words.
2. The parallel lives of the two main characters are interesting to follow. One feels real emotions for both. There are a few shocking moments in the book, which stand out quite a bit in front of the otherwise fairly tame narrative.
3. I grew up with the Oxford English Dictionary, and I always wondered how they compiled all the words. It was great learning about how they did that.
4. The book covers an array of themes and topics, and a fairly diverse geography. Mental illness, civil war, sexual propriety, crime and punishment, one can learn a little bit about a lot of issues in the reading of Simon Winchester's book.
I wouldn't recommend the book to just anyone, though. It can be kind of slow, and sometimes one simply grows tired of bouncing back and forth between the two main characters. It is also fairly short; one sort of wishes for more detail on certain events. In some places, the book reads like a crime/detective novel from the 19th century, in others it is more like a biography. It sort of skips around from one style to the next, almost as if different parts were written at very different times by an author in very different states of mind. Overall, though, this book is a nice, quick read, a good plot, and you will learn a thing or two from it.
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Format: Paperback
This book is an 'easy' read. However, it's content is not what one might expect! I found the book quite fascinating and, at the same time learned a lot, amongst other important issues, about American history during the civil war.
The two main characters definitely left a lasting legacy! Who would have thought that, the creation of the Oxford Dictionary would involve such people of different backgrounds and, personal history.

This book stands out as one one should read!

Helga Sarkar
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I will never take a dictionary for granted again! The incredible dedication of these people to catalogue the English language was beyond amazing. We all have something to offer don't we. Dr. Minor was a poor unfortunate suffering from dementia or schizophrenia but he had a well trained mind. I agree with the author that everybody seems to have forgotten about poor Mr. Merrett who lost his life. That the author was able to reach his great grandson who I believe was a doctor himself was touching.

This book taught me so much. Without computers and modern technology these people were able to bring forth one of the most important books, one that is relevant still today. Would we be able to find this kind of dedication now?

I am trilingual and never appreciated this until now. With three languages, two Latin based and also having learnt Latin in school I was able to decipher a lot of the words at the top of each chapter. So the lesson here is to learn to speak as many languages as you can thereby enriching you world.

Thank you Mr. Winchester.
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By C. J. Thompson TOP 1000 REVIEWER on Oct. 29 2010
Format: Paperback
I like Winchester's style of writing. He is able to take some very focused, sometimes obscure, historical subjects and relate them in a way that is both entertaining and informative. This particular work is the second of two books he has written about the creation of the 'Oxford English Dictionary'. The first is The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary which is a broad look at the dictionary's history, with special focus on the most prominent editor, Professor James Murray. Professor Murray is, of course, the same professor as in the 'Professor and the Madman' wherein the (much narrower) focus of the tale is the one Dr W.C. Minor, the lunatic murderer who was such a prolific contributor to the OED project.

On the whole, I preferred this book (which actually was written earlier than the other, as I learned to my surprise). It is much lighter in tone than the later work and I found my sympathies engaged by the tragic history of the poor Doctor more so than I did the treatment of Murray (who, admittedly, is really only a subordinate 'character' to the dictionary itself). Having said that, though, I have to acknowledge that I probably would not have enjoyed reading about Minor's story quite as much had I not read 'The Meaning Everything' first. I think it would be much harder to appreciate Minor's contribution to the OED without the much more detailed account of just how the dictionary was compiled that the later book provides.

It is, just possibly, a bit of a shame that Winchester could not have written the history of the three characters (the OED, Murray and Minor) in one comprehensive volume.
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