The Professor and the Madman is Simon Winchester’s 1998 account of the world’s most impressive dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED).
Winchester details its origins and development, focusing on its chief editor (Professor James Murray) and one of its chief contributors who was a “madman” (Dr. William Minor).
Mel Gibson bought the movie rights immediately and it was released last month with Gibson playing the part of Murray and Sean Penn as Minor.
Let’s start with the statistics about the OED: It had 12 “tombstone-size volumes.” It took 70 years to complete and was finished in 1928. The first portion was published in 1884 — 352 pages, describing every word from A to Ant. The original had 415,000 words, 1.83 million quotes for every use of every word, and 178 miles of type. In constructing it, they only lost one word: “bondmaid.” There were five supplements after the 1st edition — and then a 2nd edition, a half-century later — which extended the work to 20 volumes.
Winchester helpfully charts the history of dictionaries — why they would desirable, early efforts at (far) paler versions, and how to accomplish the work. He notes that Shakespeare had access to a modest thesaurus but no dictionary; you couldn’t just “look something up.” In 1604, Robert Cawdrey compiled the first English dictionary — a 120-page book of 2,500 “unusual” words. (Not surprisingly, unusual words were the focus of early dictionaries.) This was the catalyst for 150 years of diverse efforts, culminating in Samuel Johnson’s majestic dictionary, which was the standard until it was replaced by the OED.
There are other considerations in making a dictionary. For example, no words in a definition can be more complicated or less known than the word being defined. And Winchester is good at describing the difficulties one would not expect — for example, the intricacies of a word like “art,” which turns out to be difficult to define in all of its many uses.
Murray issued an appeal to the public for help, providing detailed instructions. The response was amazing, but the project was far larger than Murray imagined. At this point, Winchester re-introduces us to William Minor, whose history is developed earlier in the book. Minor responded to the appeal and became one of the two most important contributors.
Minor was housed in a relatively comfortable wing of the prison. He still had his military pension which gave him some resources, mostly spent on books. He occupied two cells — one of which contained his library, writing desk, and chairs. (He later donated all of his books to Murray’s library, where they are still housed today.) He also had art supplies, played the flute, had a collection of hard liquors, and paid a servant to do tasks for him. A bit more than a cot and three squares!
Minor was extremely smart, organized, and dedicated to the task at hand. But he was also insane — with occasional, dangerous, and bizarre delusions. He had been a doctor and Civil War veteran who went from quirky to crazy and murdered a man in England, resulting in his imprisonment.
Minor developed a relationship with and sent money to the murder victim’s wife — who brought him books and visited him in prison. This surprising relationship brought a sense of normalcy to his life. Along the same lines, he saw the invitation to join Murray’s project as “a long-sought badge of renewed membership in the society from which he had been so long estranged.” This led to 20 years of work — from 1885 to 1905, where he contributed mightily to the OED.
The best part of the story: since Minor’s address was so basic (Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berks), nobody knew for years that he was in an insane asylum. Winchester details the eventual meeting between Minor and Murray, laying out the legend and the more-likely details of the discovery about his housing arrangements. The catalyst was a party in late 1890 to celebrate the OED project and those who were crafting it. Minor did not show, only offering a vague explanation about “physical circumstances.” Murray follows up, visits the address, and learns the truth about Minor’s insanity and imprisonment. They enjoyed years of visits afterwards.
Life get increasingly strange and depressing for Minor at the end. Winchester details Minor’s autopeotomy — in a chapter titled “the unkindest cut.” Ouch! In March 1910, a new warden orders all of his privileges to be removed. In April 1910, with declining health, his brother was able to persuade Winston Churchill to allow him to return to America.
Perhaps an even unkinder cut is one of omission: Minor died in 1920, “forgotten in obscurity” and “buried beside a slum.” It can be hoped that Winchester’s book (and Gibson’s movie) will bring recognition to this strange and productive man’s life.