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

This book was a gift from Scrabble player Christine Economos. She raved about it and sent me a copy several years ago. As with many books that were gifts or, unfortunately all too often my own purchases, I push them to the bottom of the reading pile in favour of more urgent reads like library copies or interlibrary loans.  

The Professor and the Madman was a book I could not put down. After two disappointing junky books about a still living Elvis and demonic spirits masquerading as space aliens, I had a good time with this one. Winchester tells the story behind the creation of the pièce de résistance of all English dictionaries: the Oxford English Dictionary. Seventy years in the making, the first edition of the OED came out in 1928 with half a million entries spread over twenty-two thousand pages in twenty volumes. How can such a tale be so captivating?

Take the professor in the title, James Murray, who was the chief editor of the OED for several decades, and the madman, William Chester Minor. Murray made it his mission to publish the OED during his lifetime, but died thirteen years before it came out. His organizational skills and methodology for words and their inclusion was fascinating to read about. Minor contributed more to the OED than any other individual–all from his cell at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. The story clears up some of the mythology that has grown about these two men, such as the fact that Murray had suspicions that Minor was a patient at the asylum from their first correspondence (and not merely a medical officer on staff there). One learns a great deal about nineteenth-century mental illness and how it was diagnosed and treated. Unfortunately the understanding of schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorders would come too late to help Minor.

The most gruesome part of the story concerns Minor’s autopeotomy [1]. As I read this chapter I recalled all the restless writhing that accompanied my read of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho twenty years ago. When I read that novel I so much wanted to skip sections and I even held the book further away from my eyes as I read it, as if increased distance could make the horror more palatable. Such was my behaviour as I read of Minor’s autopeotomy.

I was most touched by the revelation that Minor reached out to the widow of the man he killed. She forgave him, and visited him several times at the asylum, even bringing him vast quantities of books so that he could continue his OED research.

This was a great read. I am so glad to have friends like Christine Economos!

[1] Scrabblers take note: this word is not in Collins either. I won’t spoil the story by revealing what this word means.

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