Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester  242 pp.

That lengthy title pretty much says it all. At the end of the 19th century, a committee was charged with creating the definitive dictionary of the English Language. In charge was Professor James Murray. The group solicited definitions with accompanying quotes from literature in the effort to find the earliest usage of each word. One man, Dr. W.C. Minor submitted more than ten thousand entries. When the professor sought out this prolific contributor he discovered that Dr. Minor was a patient rather than a doctor at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Minor had killed a total stranger during a delusional episode. Dr. Minor was, in fact, a doctor and had been a Union Army surgeon during the American Civil War the horrors of which may have contributed to his mental instability. The book covers the history of and Murray's hard work on the OED as well as Minor's life before, during, and after his commitment to Broadmoor. I listened to the audio book version and, aside from hearing the chapter about Minor's horrific self-mutilation while eating my lunch, I enjoyed it.

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