The Professor and the Madman

The full title of this book is The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Quite the title, and quite a book. I never would have thought a book about the making of a dictionary would be so interesting, but it is! A bit of background: The OED was compiled with the help of many volunteers who would send information about words in to the main dictionary office. The Professor and the Madman focuses on the relationship between Professor James Murray and Dr. W. C. Minor, an American who was one of the most active of these volunteers, since he had a lot of time on his hands as an inmate at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

One of the things that struck me in reading The Professor and the Madman is how uneventful our lives have become. Dr. Minor lived in two continents, became a doctor, and fought in a war, then moved again to England by the time he committed the murder that landed him at the Broadmoor Asylum at the age of thirty-seven, (read the book for details, it’s fascinating). Also, we don’t grow beards like we used to in the late nineteenth century.

Professor Murray didn’t lead quite as diverse a life as Dr. Minor, (but then again, he didn’t end up in an asylum), however he dedicated the last thirty-six years of his life to editing the OED, a feat that is impressive, and I imagine most men and women would think twice about doing today.

The Professor and the Madman is not a huge book, but, (with the possible exception of in important section on the history of dictionaries), is very interesting and fun to read.

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