Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Professor and the Madman

I'm not sure its really possible to be an avid reader and not love words. Oh sure, you can get caught up in a plot or start to fee at home with certain characters, but deep down, there has to be some kind of abiding word love, or you'd just watch lots of movies. Some people write interesting words down in lists, either to remind them to look up their meaning or just as a reminder to try using them – whether you do this or not, it is proven that readers have much wider vocabularies than non-readers (although whether or not that vocabulary is on display is another thing entirely). I am not someone who compulsively looks up words, but when I need to, I go to the dictionary – the OED, to be precise. For simple spelling, it is sometimes easiest to just use Google, but for meaning, or if there's likely to be a disputed spelling (American vs. Canadian, for example), I pick up the hard copy. I have been told that this is "old fashioned," but I don't care; there is something so lovely about leafing through pages and finding new words and/or discovering new meanings for words you thought you understood. But for all this, I never put that much thought into how my little dictionary came to be, which is why Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A tale of murder, insanity and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary was so particularly attractive to me when it first caught my eye a few years ago. (Nevermind that it took me years to actually pick it up and read it).

Winchester splits his narrative, more or less, between two men (as indicated, I suppose, in the title): James Murray, the titular professor who helmed the OED through the majority of its making, and William Minor, the American "madman" who helped. The relevant thing here, if you are only familiar with the concise or "little" versions of the OED, is that in the big, authoritative volume, the words are all accompanied by several quotations from literature that indicate not only their meaning(s), but also their history of use. It seems like no big deal now to find any old quotation, but in the late-1800s and early-1900s, when the dictionary was being compiled, everything had to be discovered manually, which required a whole lot of readers.

As Winchester explains, there were other dictionaries before the OED, but most of them were not concerned with quotations and, although this seems funny now, only included words that were deemed interesting or exotic. There was no need to define, for example, "take" or "bread," because people knew what they were. The OED was a departure from that style of dictionary making, and as a result, much more labour intensive and time consuming. There was a call for volunteer readers (the dictionary should be democratic, after all) who were encouraged to read certain books from certain time periods and then take accurate note of the occurrence of certain words. William Minor, an avid reader and an inmate in an asylum for the criminally insane, saw one of these notices and immediately offered his services.

It is around this point that Winchester's interest deviates from my own. His history of the dictionary, in general, is fascinating, as is his explanation of how the OED was even begun and the background of Murray, the man who left school at 14 and then rose to the top of the philological field anyway. All of that, as well as the chapters about Minor's early life, were quite interesting, but this is a case of one stream of the narrative interesting me more than the other, and I have to admit that I cared more about the dictionary than Minor's sad decline, which clearly was of more interest to Winchester. That being said, the story is compelling, and as a history of how we understood and treated mental illness, Minor's side of the story is certainly interesting and, I gather, largely untold. Certainly his contribution of thousands of quotations is astounding, as is the fact that he managed to be so productive in such an unfortunate condition.

Structurally, The Professor and the Madman mostly alternates between Minor and Murray. Each chapter begins with a keyword of sorts, which is accompanied by its etymology and its relevant definitions. In some cases, these words are unusual, or out of common speech, and in others they are everyday words, but in all cases they are in some way relevant to the following chapter, and in the cases of the rare words I enjoyed keeping an eye out for them. Beyond the definitions, Winchester can get a little explain-y about some things, but considering that he's writing about the dictionary, perhaps the explainiest book ever written, I suppose that makes sense. Overall, though, The Professor and the Madman is a fascinating book, both about the OED and the history of asylums and mental illness, and I am very glad I finally read it. 

I tend to take the dictionary for granted – as if it just sprung up out of thin air – because it seems like such an obvious and necessary tool (working as a copy editor means I use it everyday, so it is literally a tool of my trade). Having read Winchester's account of its creation, though, has changed the way I think about it though. Its concise definitions seem more like an art, now, and I find it very difficult to imagine a time when no such authoritative source existed. That it was so greatly helped by the work of a man suffering from what we might now term schizophrenia is even more astonishing, and makes me want to make a trip to the reference library where I could sit with the one of the full volumes to just marvel at the amount of work that went into it.

The Professor and the Madman
by Simon Winchester
First published in 1998 (cover image shown from Harper Perennial edition)


  1. I too, have a fondness for fat paperbound dictionaries. Once I had an old one and every time I looked up a word I would outline that word in blue ink. Then I'd notice if I was looking the same word up again- a bit nuts, I know! Anyhow, I read this book and found it very interesting if a bit dull or complicated at parts.


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