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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
10,644264494 (3.8)431
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: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett (wrmjr66)
  4. 20
    The Devil in the White City 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 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)
  6. 10
    The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures by Edward Ball (davesmind)
  7. 10
    Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture by Nicholas A. Basbanes (bnbookgirl)
  8. 00
    Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary by K. M. Elisabeth Murray (KayCliff)
  9. 01
    Queen Victoria: From Her Birth to the Death of the Prince Consort by Cecil Woodham-Smith (carlym)
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» See also 431 mentions

English (257)  Indonesian (2)  German (2)  Dutch (1)  Catalan (1)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (264)
Showing 1-5 of 257 (next | show all)
Right on the heels of reading The Dictionary of Lost Words, I had to read this to round out my reading about compiling the Oxford English Dictionary. This book is nonfiction and relates the interesting story of the murderer committed to an asylum who contributed a great deal to the research behind compiling the dictionary. I understand it was the basis for a movie called The Professor and the Madman, from 2019. If you are interested in this subject and have read The Meaning of Everything, also by Simon Winchester, this book will add more information for you. ( )
  hobbitprincess | Jul 16, 2021 |
This was a slower read than I would have liked, but not too much of a slog. An interesting story of a mentally ill murderer, a lexicographer who befriended him, and the dictionary that we know today as the OED. ( )
  achmorrison | Jul 13, 2021 |
An interesting biographical piece regarding one of the largest contributors to the development of the Oxford English dictionary. Although this man was a murderer, imprisoned, and is a danger to himself, he sought a form of redemption for earlier crimes in his large contribution to the development of the Oxford English dictionary. The author achieves the ability to put the reader in a different place and time. The history of psychiatry and also the history of medicine is dealt with. This can be approached by a novice in either medicine or psychiatry and can also be a good introduction into the history of lexicography. Recommended. ( )
  aadyer | Jul 12, 2021 |
confined criminal lunatic helps w OED
  ritaer | Jul 10, 2021 |
This is a fascinating look into the life of the OED, dictionary-making in general, and Victorian-era England and America, and was the nerdiest "reading for fun" book I've indulged in lately. It's overflowing with interesting tidbits about the OED, weaving in with the saga of Dr. W.C. Minor's life and madness. There were times that Winchester seemed to stray a little far off topic, but his discussions were thoughtful and intriguing. I'm positive this is one of the more accessible books about dictionaries, so if you've got an itch for a more scholarly "beach read," this book's for you. ( )
  LibroLindsay | Jun 18, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 257 (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.
Quotations
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.
He would index and collect and collate words and sentences from each of the books, until his prison desk was heavy with the quires of paper, each one containing a master-list of the indexed words from his eclectic, very valuable and much valued little gem of a library.... He had made a key, a Victorian word-Rolodex, a dictionary-within-a-dictionary, and instantly available.
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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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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.

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140271287, 0141037717

 

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