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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making… (1998)

by Simon Winchester

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
10,125244486 (3.8)410
The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story - a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking. Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray's offer was regularly - and mysteriously - refused. Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor - that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane - and locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.… (more)
  1. 40
    Among the Gently Mad: Perspectives and Strategies for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-first Century by Nicholas A. Basbanes (bnbookgirl)
  2. 30
    A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas A. Basbanes (bnbookgirl)
  3. 30
    The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett (wrmjr66)
  4. 20
    The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (Stbalbach)
    Stbalbach: Both concern late-19th C American killers in the backdrop of a bigger social story of advancement (Chicago Fair and Oxford English Dictionary).
  5. 10
    The Inventor and the Tycoon by Edward Ball (davesmind)
  6. 10
    Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture by Nicholas A. Basbanes (bnbookgirl)
  7. 10
    The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (PuddinTame)
    PuddinTame: Two accounts of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Meaning of Everything is a history of how the dictionary was created. The Professor and the Madman is focussed on a peculiar story: a detailed acccount of the man who contributed the most entries to the Oxford English Dictionary, while living in the Broadmoor Asylum (near Crawthorne) for the Criminally Insane.… (more)
  8. 01
    Queen Victoria: From Her Birth to the Death of the Prince Consort by Cecil Woodham-Smith (carlym)

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» See also 410 mentions

English (236)  Indonesian (2)  German (2)  Dutch (1)  Catalan (1)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (243)
Showing 1-5 of 236 (next | show all)
Interesting. Eight years later (2012) I still fondly remember reading this book. ( )
  bread2u | Jul 1, 2020 |
For someone who loves words - their origin and how they are strung together -- this book should be fascinating. Now I want to be able to afford a complete set of OED.
  Elizabeth80 | Jun 3, 2020 |
Written in 1996, (also known as The Surgeon of Crowthorne) this book revolves around the lives of two men that seem so different but surprisingly similar, that work together to develop possibly the most known book of the English language, The Oxford English Dictionary.

Reading the book was such a thrill, it showed how war pushes people into insanity but also how obsession and determination can pull them back from the deepest pits of Insanity. ( )
  abbas0786 | May 28, 2020 |
This is the amazing history of two world-class minds, with very different backgrounds, working together (along with thousands of other readers) to help create the Oxford English Dictionary that we know today. The history is well expressed and the characters drawn so that you feel as though you understand them as well as what motivated and inspired them. It's a story of friendship, war, psychiatry, class, and the penal system in nineteenth-century England. Fascinating stuff! If you like the book, there is a cinematic version of the book that is also worth watching! ( )
  BooksForYears | May 14, 2020 |
more like 3.5 not quite 4. interesting story ( )
  RunsOnEspresso | Mar 25, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 236 (next | show all)
Here, as so consistently throughout, Winchester finds exactly the right tool to frame the scene.
added by John_Vaughan | editPowells, Dave Weich (Oct 1, 2001)

» Add other authors (22 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Winchester, Simonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hood, PhilipIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Out, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pracher, RickCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To the memory of
G. M.
First words
Popular myth has it that one of the most remarkable conversations in modern literary history took place on a cool and misty late autumn in 1896, in the small village of Crowthorne in the county of Berkshire.
One word --and only one word-- was ever actually lost: bondmaid, which appears in Johnson's dictionary, was actually lost by Murray and was found, a stray without a home, long after the fascicle Battentlie - Bozzom had been published. It, and tens of thousands of words that had evolved or appeared during the forty-four years spent assembling the fascicles and their [twelve] parent volumes, appeared in a supplement, which came out in 1933. Four further supplements appeared between 1972 and 1986. In 1989, using the new abilities of the computer, Oxford University Press issued its fully integrated second edition, incorporating all the changes and additions of the supplements in twenty rather more slender volumes. [220]
Defining words properly is a fine and peculiar craft. There are rules—a word (to take a noun as an example) must first be defined according to the class of things to which it belongs (mammal, quadruped), and then differentiated from other members of that class (bovine, female). There must be no words in the definition that are more complicated or less likely to be known than the word being defined. The definition must say what something is, and not what it is not. If there is a range of meanings of any one word—cow having a broad range of meanings, cower having essentially only one—then they must be stated. And all the words in the definition must be found elsewhere in the dictionary—a reader must never happen upon a word in the dictionary that he or she cannot discover elsewhere in it. If the definer contrives to follow all these rules, stirs into the mix an ever-pressing need for concision and elegance—and if he or she is true to the task, a proper definition will probably result.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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UK title: The Surgeon of Crowthorne
US title: The Professor and the Madman
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Book description
A wonderful story...It has all the ingredients of one of Patrick McGrath's icily stylish novels: madness, violence, arcane obsessions, weird learning, ghastly comedy - John Banville, Literary Review

Two distinguished-looking Victorians, both learned and serious, yet from very different worlds: one a brilliant polymath, the other a madman and a murderer.

Dr James Murray, erudite and pious, who broke free from an impoverished childhood to become a towering figure of British scholarship and editor of the great Oxford English Dictionary.

Dr W.C. Minor, lascivious, charismatic, a millionaire American Civil War surgeon and homicidal lunatic. Confined to Broadmoor Asylum he pursued his passion for words and became one of the OED's most valued contributors.

Their lives and unlikely friendship are unravelled in Simon Winchester's classic work of detection.

In this elegant book the writer has created a vivid parable, in the spirit of Nabakov and Borges - full of suspense, pathos and humour - Wall Street Journal

A jewel of a book, scholarly, beguiling and moving - as gripping as any thriller - Scotland on Sunday

A cracking read - Spectator
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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140271287, 0141037717

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