Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Professor and the Madman

by Simon Winchester

Subtitled: A tale of Murder, Insanity and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, which should instantly hook you and drag you right in! Ok, the murder and insanity part, but making the dictionary? As impossible as it may seem that a book about writing the dictionary could hold your attention, Winchester manages to pull off a very entertaining and engaging history of the demand for and the 70-year mission to create a dictionary of English words, their derivation and the development of their usage.

The project was led by James Murray, who sent out requests to the public interested in reading, identifying and quoting any and all words of the English language. Surprisingly, hundreds of volunteers sent thousands of "catch word" slips daily to the Professor. The requirements for each entry were specific: word spelling, pronunciation, etmyology, quotation(s) including source material, and definition; and Murray was an exacting master. One of his most dedicated and valuable contributors was Dr. William Chester Minor who furnished more than 10,000 definitions. It wasn't until years after Minor's involvement began that Murray discovered Minor was an involuntary resident in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

As I am such a fan of little known history, this book was right up my alley. If at times it is a bit melodramatic, it is well researched and a quick interesting read. 

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