The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

by Simon Winchester

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Overview

A New York Times Notable Book  •  Now a Major Motion Picture

The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary—and literary history.

The making of the OED was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, was stunned to discover that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. But their surprise would pale in comparison to what they were about to discover when the committee insisted on honoring him. For Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

Masterfully researched and eloquently written, The Professor and the Madman “is the linguistic detective story of the decade.” (William Safire, New York Times Magazine)

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061807602
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/13/2009
Sold by: HARPERCOLLINS
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 26,633
Lexile: 1330L (what's this?)
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, The Men Who United the States, The Map That Changed the World, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa, all of which were New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. In 2006, Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He resides in western Massachusetts.

Hometown:

New York; Massachusetts; Scotland

Date of Birth:

September 28, 1944

Place of Birth:

London, England

Education:

M.A., St. Catherine¿s College, Oxford, 1966

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Dead of Night in Lambeth Marsh


Murder (m2.0de0), sb. Forms: a. 1 mor1or, -ur, 3-4 mor1re, 3-4, 6 murthre, 4 myr1er, 4-6 murthir, morther, 5 Sc. murthour, murthyr, 5-6 murthur, 6 mwrther, Sc. morthour, 4-9 (now dial. and Hist. or arch.) murther; b. 3-5 murdre, 4-5 moerdre, 4-6 mordre, 5 moordre, 6 murdur, mourdre, 6- murder. [OE. mor3or neut. (with pl. of masc. form mor1ras) = Goth. maur1r neut.:-OTeut. *mur1rom:-pre-Teut. *mrtro-m, f. root *mer-: mor-: mr- to die, whence L. mori' to die, mors (morti-) death, Gr. mort'j, brot'j mortal, Skr. mr. to die, mara masc., mrti fem., death, marta mortal, OSl. mi'r'eti, Lith. mirti to die, Welsh marw, Irish mar1 dead.

The word has not been found in any Teut. lang. but Eng. and Gothic, but that it existed in continental WGer. is evident, as it is the source of OF. murdre, murtre (mod. F. meurtre) and of med. L. mordrum, murdrum, and OHG. had the derivative murdren Murder v. All the Teut. langs. exc. Gothic possessed a synonymous word from the same root with different suffix: OE. mor3 neut., masc. (Murth1), OS. mor3 neut., OFris. morth, mord neut., MDu. mort, mord neut. (Du. moord), OHG. mord (MHG. mort, mod. G. mord), ON. mor3 neut.:-OTeut. *mur1o-:-pre-Teut. *mrto-.

The change of original 3 into d (contrary to the general tendency to change d into 3 before syllabic r) was prob. due to the influence of the AF. murdre, moerdre and the Law Latin murdrum.]

1. The most heinous kind of criminal homicide; also, an instance of this. In English (also Sc. and U.S.) Law, defined as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought; often more explicitly wilful murder. In OE. the word could beapplied to any homicide that was strongly reprobated (it had also the senses 'great wickedness', 'deadly injury', 'torment'). More strictly, however, it denoted secret murder, which in Germanic antiquity was alone regarded as (in the modern sense) a crime, open homicide being considered a private wrong calling for blood-revenge or compensation. Even under Edward I, Britton explains the AF. murdre only as felonious homicide of which both the perpetrator and the victim are unidentified. The 'malice aforethought' which enters into the legal definition of murder, does not (as now interpreted) admit of any summary definition. A person may even be guilty of 'wilful murder' without intending the death of the victim, as when death results from an unlawful act which the doer knew to be likely to cause the death of some one, or from injuries inflicted to facilitate the commission of certain offences. It is essential to 'murder' that the perpetrator be of sound m! ind, and (in England, though not in Scotland) that death should ensue within a year and a day after the act presumed to have caused it. In British law no degrees of guilt are recognized in murder; in the U.S. the law distinguishes 'murder in the first degree' (where there are no mitigating circumstances) and 'murder in the second degree'.

In Victorian London, even in a place as louche and notoriously crime-ridden as Lambeth Marsh, the sound of gunshots was a rare event indeed. The marsh was a sinister place, a jumble of slums and sin that crouched, dark and ogrelike, on the bank of the Thames just across from Westminster; few respectable Londoners would ever admit to venturing there. It was a robustly violent part of town as well—the footpad lurked in Lambeth, there had once been an outbreak of garroting, and in every crowded alley were the roughest kinds of pickpocket. Fagin, Bill Sikes, and Oliver Twist would have all seemed quite at home in Victorian Lambeth: This was Dickensian London writ large. But it was not a place for men with guns. The armed criminal was a phenomenon little known in the Lambeth of Prime Minister Gladstone's day, and even less known in the entire metropolitan vastness of London. Guns were costly, cumbersome, difficult to use, hard to conceal. Then, as still today, the use of a firearm in the commission of a crime was thought of as somehow a very un-British act—and as something to be written about and recorded as a rarity. "Happily," proclaimed a smug editorial in Lambeth's weekly newspaper, "we in this country have no experience of the crime of 'shooting down,' so common in the United States."

So when a brief fusillade of three revolver shots rang out shortly after two o'clock on the moonlit Saturday morning of February 17, 1872, the sound was unimagined, unprecedented, and shocking. The three cracks—perhaps there were four—were loud, very loud, and they echoed through the cold and smokily damp night air. They were heard—and, considering their rarity, just by chance instantly recognized—by a keen young police constable named Henry Tarrant, then attached to the Southwark Constabulary's L Division.

The clocks had only recently struck two, his notes said later; he was performing with routine languor the duties of the graveyard shift, walking slowly beneath the viaduct arches beside Waterloo Railway Station, rattling the locks of the shops and cursing the bone-numbing chill. When he heard the shots, Tarrant blew his whistle to alert any colleagues who (he hoped) might be on patrol nearby, and he began to run. Within seconds he had raced through the warren of mean and slippery lanes that made up what in those days was still called a village, and had emerged into the wide riverside swath of Belvedere Road, from whence he was certain the sounds had come.

Another policeman, Henry Burton, who had heard the piercing whistle, as had a third, William Ward, rushed to the scene. According to Burton's notes, he dashed toward the echoing sound and came across his colleague Tarrant, who was by then holding a man, as if arresting him. "Quick!" cried Tarrant. "Go to the road—a man has been shot!" Burton and Ward raced toward Belvedere Road and within seconds found the unmoving body of a dying man. They fell to their knees, and onlookers noted they had cast off their helmets and gloves and were hunched over the victim. There was blood gushing onto the pavement—blood staining a spot that would for many months afterward be described in London's more dramatically minded papers as the location of a heinous crime, a terrible event, an atrocious occurrence, a vile murder.

The Lambeth Tragedy, the papers eventually settled upon calling it—as if the simple existence of Lambeth itself were not something of a tragedy. Yet this was a most unusual event, even by the diminished standards of the marsh dwellers. For though the place where the killing occurred had over the years been witness to many strange events, the kind eagerly chronicled in the penny dreadfuls, this particular drama was to trigger a chain of consequences that was quite without precedent. And while some aspects of this crime and its aftermath would turn out to be sad and barely believable, not all of them, as this account will show, were to be wholly tragic. Far from it, indeed....

Table of Contents

1: The Dead of Night in Lambeth Marsh
2: The Man Who Taught Latin to Cattle
3: The Madness of War
4: Gathering Earth's Daughters
5: The Big Dictionary Conceived
6: The Scholar in Cell Block Two
7: Entering the Lists
8: Annulated, Art, Brick-Tea, Buckwheat
9: The Meeting of Minds
10: The Unkindest Cut
11: Then Only the Monuments
Postscript
Author's Note
Acknowledgments
Suggestions for Further Reading

What People are Saying About This

William Safire

"The Professor and the Madman...is the linguistic detective story of the decade.... Winchester does a superb job of historical research that should entice readers even more interested in deeds than words."

David Walton

"elegant and scrupulous"

Oliver Sacks, M.D.

I found The Professor and the Madman both enthralling and moving, in its brilliant reconstruction of a most improbable event: the major contributions made to the great Oxford English Dictionary by a deeply delusional, incarcerated "madman," and the development of a true friendship between him and the editor of the OED. One sees here the redemptive potential of work and love in even the most deeply, "hopelessly," psychotic."

Lithe Sebesta

Winchester has written a powerful account of the shifting foundations on which meaning is built, and the impoverishment of a language that could not describe or give peace to one of its makers.

Reading Group Guide

Introduction

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took 70 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 of a friendship -- an account of two remarkable men whose strange 20-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking. Professor James Murray, a former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the brilliant editor of the OED project. Dr. W. C. Minor, a retired American surgeon 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. Not only was he remarkably prolific, sending in as many as ten thousand definitions, but he was also a murderer, clinically insane, and locked up in Broadmoor, England's asylum for criminal lunatics.

The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness and genius and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history. With riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Who is Dr. W.C. Minor? How do you first come to know him at the beginning of The Professor and the Madman? What role does he play in the "Lambeth Tragedy?"

  2. Who is James Murray? How would youcharacterize his early interest in philology? How does Murray come to work on the Oxford English Dictionary? What was the initial projection of how long the O.E.D. would take to complete?

  3. How does Dr. Minor's madness first reveal itself? How do his experiences in Ceylon, at the Battle of the Wilderness, and in Florida relate to his condition? What are some of the symptoms of his illness? How would you describe his personality?

  4. What did you think of the elaborate process of creating the Oxford English Dictionary? Was it easy to visualize? Did it surprise you to learn that in the end more than 6 million slips with definitions were submitted by volunteers?

  5. How would you describe Dr. Minor's life at the asylum? How did he have access to books? What unusual visitor helped him in this respect? What aspects of his situation at the asylum did you find especially unusual? According to the author, how might Dr. Minor have learned of the creation of the O.E.D.?

  6. How does his work on the O.E.D. change Dr. Minor's personality? How does it impact his madness? What are some of the ideas and rumors about Minor that float around the Scriptorium, where the O.E.D. is being written and edited?

  7. How does Murray first learn of Dr. Minor's status as a criminally insane asylum inmate? How does Murray eventually come to know Minor? How would you describe their relationship? What aspects of their interaction lead you to this assessment?

  8. How does Dr. Minor injure himself while he is at Broadmoor? How did you interpret this act? Do you agree with the author that his dismemberment was an attempt to purge himself of "unsavory" thoughts and deeds? How does the arrival of Dr. Brayn change the living conditions at Broadmoor for Dr. Minor?

  9. What elements of this story did you find especially harrowing, fascinating, bewildering, surprising? Did you feel sympathetic toward Dr. Minor? Were you surprised at the strong bond that developed between him and James Murray?

About the Author

Simon Winchester was a geologist at Oxford and worked in Africa and on offshore oil rigs before becoming a full-time globe-trotting foreign correspondent and writer. He is the author of Krakatoa, The Map that Changed the World, The Professor and the Madman, and The Fracture Zone, among many other titles. He currently lives on a small farm in the Berkshires in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.

Interviews

On Thursday, September 17th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Simon Winchester to discuss The Professor And The Madman.


Moderator: Welcome, Simon Winchester! We are so pleased that you could join us this evening to discuss your new book, The Professor And The Madman. How are you this evening?

Simon Winchester: Tremendously well, thank you. It is actually so very good, after two weeks of talking about the book, to be writing about it instead -- very therapeutic and restful. I hope!


Graham from Boston: How did you first hear of this fascinating story? Thanks for such an excellent account of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Simon Winchester: I was, believe it or not, in the bath one day before breakfast, reading a book about lexicography (as one does). It was called Chasing The Sun by Jonathon Green, and in it, the author mentions, almost as an aside, how the lexicographical world was familiar with the tale of W. C. Minor, the lunatic murderer who was so important to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. I remember sitting up in the bath, Archimedes-like, saying I had never heard of such a thing, and calling a friend of mine in Oxford (the phone being beside the bath). She said yes, she knew the tale -- and if I could get access to the files in Broadmoor asylum, then, she thought, I'd have a splendid yarn to tell.


Lynn Riggs from Chesterfield: Is your book the first work about Minor and Murray? What an amazing account. I can't believe it hasn't already been made into a play or book.

Simon Winchester: Actually a New York playwright named Mitchell Redman has written a play about one rather sad aspect of W. C. Minor's life, but the play never found a producer (perhaps it might now, because of the renewed interest in the tale); and I haven't seen it because, quite understandably, Mitchell prefers to keep the play tightly guarded. But you're right -- it is surprising that it hasn't been told fully before. Surprising and, from my point of view, delightful!


Peter Henry from Seattle: Can't wait to read your book! I am curious at how the making of Murray's Oxford English Dictionary was funded. How long did it take to complete, and were all the members working on it salaried?

Simon Winchester: It took an astonishing 70 years to complete (they thought it would take four). It cost about three million pounds in the money of the day, and everyone was paid (including Dr. Murray's children, who were paid sixpence a week to sort the slips into alphabetical order -- and became demon crossword solvers as a result). The editors also issued the dictionary in paperback parts, known as fascicles, so as to improve their cash flow. In the USA they cost about $2.50 each, and came out about once every three years.


Dale from Williamsburg: What type of sources did you use to write this book -- i.e. where did you draw most of your information on Minor?

Simon Winchester: The two crucial sources were the previously secret files at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in England, and St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington D.C. Plus a lot of U.S. Army records, Civil War records, and the amazing archives at Oxford University Press (which preserve such things as the tail of a mouse found among the dictionary slips -- and filed under the letter T, not M, a matter that offended some linguistic pedants).


Dennis from Worchester, MA: It is amazing to comprehend that Shakespeare did not have access to a dictionary! Thanks for including the chapters on the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. How fascinating. I am curious -- why do you think it took the English so long (lagging behind Italy and France) to compile a dictionary?

Simon Winchester: I think the lag came about in part because of the intellectual struggle going on in England over whether or not to try to "fix" the language, as the French tried to do, to establish a body that decided what was good and what was bad, what could be included and what could not. People like Jonathan Swift argued that English ought to be fixed like this; others -- happily, the majority, in the end -- reckoned that English was a forever changing language, living and extending itself, and that a proper dictionary, which would of necessity be a very large book, would reflect that constant shifting, that constant evolution.


Reed Tate from Boston: What are some of the explanations of Minor's madness? And when he contributed to the dictionary, was he still suffering?

Simon Winchester: It is always difficult to decide what event triggers madness. All we can say for sure about Minor was that he had a predisposition to madness, and that something tipped him over the edge into delusional paranoid schizophrenia, which is how he would be diagnosed today. He probably was tipped over the edge by being forced to brand the letter D with a red-hot branding iron onto the cheek of a deserter in the one Civil War battle in which he fought -- but then again, he may have been terribly sunburned during a long summer duty in south Florida, and there is some evidence that he was ordered to witness the execution of a Yale classmate. Whatever the cause, he was prodigiously and floridly mad for all the years that he wrote for the Oxford English Dictionary, and for long after. All his life, in fact.


Reagan from Miami, FL: How often is the Oxford English Dictionary revised? Do you think there will ever be a complete overhaul of it?

Simon Winchester: It is being revised as we speak. A fully integrated second edition came out in 1989; there is now a pretty up-to-date CD-ROM, and they are doing a 3rd edition online (for all info on this, I'd recommend you visit the Oxford English Dictionary web page at www.Oxford English Dictionary.co.uk, I think.) In addition to that, a "New Additions" volume comes out every couple of years. There is a huge dictionary staff at Oxford, all beavering away like mad.


Sarah from Middlebury: Your descriptions of Winchester's madness suggest that he suffered from schizophrenia, complete with his delusional theories of conspiracy. What do you think?

Simon Winchester: Sarah, you speak of "Winchester's madness" -- I hope you mean Minor's. Though there is a strong streak of insanity among many lexicographers, and those interested in them, I am told.


Alexia from Yale: Were the records that you found on Minor and Murray available to the public? How painstaking were your research efforts?

Simon Winchester: The research was not, in truth, terribly difficult -- although the people in the District of Columbia government refused point-blank to let me have any St. Elizabeth's records. However, I rather trumped their ace by finding that, since Minor was a federal patient when St. E's was a federal institution, all his records were in the National Archives and available merely by asking, over the Internet. The Broadmoor Archives became available after a lot of pleading -- Broadmoor is still home to a lot of very dangerously ill people, and the authorities are not frightfully keen to let strangers in.


Claire R. from Littleton: Where did your research for this book take you?

Simon Winchester: Not very far. Broadmoor itself, Orange County, Virginia, South London, Washington, D.C., New Haven, and Sri Lanka. Actually, now that I come to think of it, quite far. But much less far than earlier books.


Larry M. from New York University: With the publication of your book and works like a A Beautiful Mind, there seems to be a trend now with recognizing genius in madness. What do you think? What can we make of such individuals?

Simon Winchester: The old chestnut of "the very fine line" that supposedly divides pure genius from dementia and lunacy -- I think it can be very overrated, very romanticized. There are some cases, and this is one of them. Ezra Pound was another. Richard Dadd. But I am sorry to say that most of the patients at Broadmoor today, and in whom I became interested, did not seem to display an abundance of talent.


Pam H. from Detroit: Your bio says that this book may be made into a movie. Would you be involved in writing the screenplay? When can we expect it in theaters?

Simon Winchester: Actually Luc Besson, who has bought the movie rights, has told me that I am considered "too literary" to do the screenplay (which I and my chums think is a bit of a joke). So someone else has been asked to tinker around with the book, and I am awaiting results. Other than that, I know that Mel Gibson has expressed a keen interest in playing Dr. Murray, and talks are said to be going on between Besson and Gibson. We'll see. I'm not holding my breath. But Besson is an amazing director, and something rather extraordinary could come out of this.


Lance R. from San Francisco, CA: How would one begin to go about finding the earliest possible use of a word? What a daunting task! How did Murray orchestrate this endeavor among his readers?

Simon Winchester: Constant exhortation, I can only imagine. Some people, when set a challenge (such as "find the word 'web page' in sources earlier than 1987," say) set about it with fantastic enthusiasm. The Oxford English Dictionary Newsletter, also to be found on the Oxford English Dictionary web page I mentioned before, gives a half-yearly list of the editors desiderata, which include things like the example I gave above.


Paul C. from New Jersey: What is your opinion on the issue of whether we should detain the mentally ill in institutions? There seems to be a lot of debate on this issue lately.

Simon Winchester: I'm certainly no expert. But within the walls of Broadmoor there are clearly a large number of people who would be a great danger to those outside; there are also a lot of very elderly criminals who might be harmless but unable to function, and would end up on the streets. So a place like Broadmoor ends up playing a dual role -- segregating abominably dangerous people from society and acting as an asylum, "a place of refuge," to give the dictionary definition, for those unable to function beyond the walls.


Berry Marshall from Baltimore, MD: Would you consider yourself a philologist? Thanks for the descriptions of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Wonderful!

Simon Winchester: Thanks a lot. No, I'm neither a philologist nor a lexicographer. But like all writers, I love words, and this makes one a dabbler in both disciplines.


Katherine Cleary from Reston: I understand that you are a journalist. What has been your most memorable assignment?

Simon Winchester: The Jonestown massacre. Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland. President Nixon's resignation. Pol Pot's funeral. Getting thrown into prison for three months in Argentina on spying charges. Lots of odds and ends stick in the mind.


Adrian W. from New York: What do you make of Eliza Merrett, the widow of the man Minor murdered, visiting Minor? How odd!

Simon Winchester: Almost the oddest aspect of the story, I think. I wonder how the film, if there is to be one, will treat the visits of this poor woman to the cell of a Minor who was clearly obsessed with sex. We will see. I await, I have to say, with some trepidation!


Saul from Reno: Why did the makers of the Oxford English Dictionary feel that quotations were so important? That must have been the most laborious aspect of the whole task!

Simon Winchester: It was incredibly laborious -- after all, if there are 1,800,000 quotations in the finished Oxford English Dictionary, consider how many had to be collected in the first place. Millions upon millions. But they were crucially important because they demonstrated the way in which the meanings and senses of words evolved over the centuries; they showed the living language actually living, as it were.


Leighton from Brooklyn, NY: What is next for you, Mr. Winchester? I found your book riveting. I hope you can find an equally compelling subject.

Simon Winchester: Thanks a lot. I am now working on another very odd tale, about a failed Arctic expedition in the 1880s, in which there was a great deal of cannibalism, and in which reputations of great men were irreparably damaged by the yellow press reporting of the time (little worse then than now, frankly). I have just come back from a long trek in Northern Ellesmere Island to see the place where the expedition started; next summer I'll go back to where it ended so tragically.


Mary Jamison from Greensboro, PA: What was Murray's reaction when he first met Minor? Can't wait to read this book. Looks great.

Simon Winchester: As Murray was actually aware that Minor was mad, he was determined to be kindly during the first meeting. After taking tea and Dundee cake with him in his cell, Murray pronounced Minor "a fine Christian gentleman -- and seemingly as sane as myself," which many consider more a comment on Murray's own sanity than on Minor's mental state!


Reed from Louisville: What has been the reaction overseas to your book? Was it published in England first?

Simon Winchester: It was published last June under the title The Surgeon Of Crowthorne, and I'm happy to say it made number one on the bestseller list and remains hovering in the top ten. Considering that none of my other books has made it into the lists, nor even come close, this has been (and continues to be) a very pleasing experience.


Tad Howard from Alexandria: What was the most surprising thing you found out when researching this book?

Simon Winchester: I think the tragic and traumatic event that occurred on December 5, 1902, but which I don't think I would be permitted to tell you about online. It was a shock to read the file, and to imagine that a man could do such a thing.


Trent from Charlottesville: Did you come up with this title? It is marvelous!

Simon Winchester: Actually, no. I wanted it to have the British title, The Surgeon Of Crowthorne, but I was told this would ensure the book's early journey to the remainder table. So my agent, Jody Hotchkiss at Sterling Lord, came up with the idea, and I'm happy to record my gratitude to him.


W. Stein from St. Louis, MO: Was the final Oxford English Dictionary version true to the vision of its original conceivers?

Simon Winchester: I believe it was, and remains so. Mind you, there are critics: Read a book called Empire Of Words by a Princeton academic named Willinsky, and he will show you how the Oxford English Dictionary is an imperial contrivance of the minds of dead white English men, and so should be (at least to an extent) disregarded.


Elke from New York: Who did the illustrations for this book? They are lovely!

Simon Winchester: I'll pass the message on to the chap in London who drew them for us. I was at first a little dubious, but people seem to like them, and so I have since eaten a bit of humble pie, or crow, or whatever, for ever having questioned the wisdom of those at HarperCollins who argued for them.


Jonathan from Seattle: What drew you to the character of Minor? Why did you feel the need to write a book about him? What were your inspirations in doing so? I'm really looking forward to reading it. It sounds fascinating!

Simon Winchester: It was a purely journalistic hunch -- the fact that a good old-fashioned story was out there to be told, the kind of thing that could take you into a crowded room, and have you say, "Shush a moment! I've got something extraordinary to tell you" -- and everyone would hush, and be amazed at the end.


Stefanie from New York: Is there a lesson to be learned from Minor's example?

Simon Winchester: That there certainly is redemption to be had -- that everyone can make a contribution, that all of us has a chance, in some way big or small, to make a difference. See how the deck was stacked against him -- and see what an astonishing thing he did, the benefits of which will last for always.


Emily Wood from Toledo: Any particular challenges in writing this book? And did Minor keep any sort of personal journal?

Simon Winchester: Seemingly not -- though people have recently written to me with offers of other papers, so who knows what I'll find out there. The challenge was really, Could I do this? I'm really a travel writer, and the idea of traveling in time, rather than in place, was strange for me. But it turned out to be truly the most enjoyable book to write.


Melissa from Connecticut: Was Minor treated fairly in the insane asylum?

Simon Winchester: Until the very end, when a brute named Dr. Brayn took away all his privileges and turfed him out of the two rooms he had occupied for 40 years. Brayn is the villain of the story, in my view. (Except he had the ideal name, I suppose, for someone running a lunatic asylum.)


Richard Hanson from Texas, USA: Is there any chance that the Internet will kill the print industry, at least for the dictionary? I worry about this!

Simon Winchester: I never want to see books as beautiful as the Oxford English Dictionary vanish. I am optimistic: Video didn't kill film, and I don't think what we are doing here will stop people producing, and reading, those wonderful confections of paper and ink we call books.


Moderator: What an interesting discussion! Thank you, Simon Winchester, for joining us this evening. Do you have any closing comments for your online audience?

Simon Winchester: Just that this has been enormous fun. My typing fingers are hurting a bit (being a hunt-and-peck person), but I'd like it to go on and on. Anyway, thanks a lot, and farewell from here.


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Professor and the Madman 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 150 reviews.
cookiepam More than 1 year ago
I love Winchester's slant on this topic - I was not particularly interested in reading either book - my mother kept bugging me to get them, then she finally got them for me. Of couse, she was right, and I was wrong. I was delighted by Winchester's quirky slant on the history of the OED. I had never heard any of the human stories about the compliation. I will now never be able to pick up an OED without thinking of the people who created it. I am surprised that the Barnes & Noble rating categories do not allow me to rate the book on: research, writing and intellectual stimulation. .... did you know that the OED continues to take submissions for new words, and new uses of words? I think that this is a perfect example of intellectual stimulation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The subject of Winchester¿s book is Sir James A. H. Murray, editor of the 'Oxford English Dictionary,' and Dr. William C. Minor, the American volunteer who worked on the 'O.E.D.' for 20 years while an inmate in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for the criminally insane. I am a New York playwright who, in 1995, completed a full-length drama focusing James Murray and William Minor, called 'The Dictionary,' and whose help Mr. Winchester sought when he was first considering writing his book. 'Winchester mentions me in his Acknowledgments.' There is a serious problem with Winchester¿s book. Mark Rozzo characterizes it perfectly in his 'Washington Post' review of 'The Professor and the Madman': '. . . we¿re never sure when Winchester is cleaving to facts and when he is fictionalizing.' Winchester also missed some significant information in his book. Moreover, there are a number of inaccuracies in 'The Professor and the Madman.' About Minor¿s death Winchester writes, incorrectly, 'There were no obituaries.' An obituary was published in 1921 in 'Yale University Obituary Record of Graduates Deceased During the Year Ending July 1, 1920.' From this obituary one learns that Minor was born in the East Indies that he entered the Yale School of Medicine in 1861 and was graduated in 1863 that he was incarcerated at Broadmoor, transferred to St. Elizabeth¿s in the U.S., and later transferred from St. Elizabeth¿s to The Retreat, in Hartford, where he died on March 26, 1920. The Yale obituary also mentions his brother Alfred. Winchester refers to the lawyer who defended Minor in his murder trial, but does not mention the lawyer¿s name. My research suggests that the person who defended Minor is the same one who defended Oscar Wilde. The man¿s name is Edward Clarke. I am surprised that Winchester did not seize upon this possibility. Winchester theorizes that Minor¿s clinically paranoid dread of the Irish, and of the Fenians in particular, was the result of his experience as a Union Army Surgeon with Irish troops during the Civil War. Winchester neglects the fact that during the years that Minor was stationed in New York 'on Governors Island' the Fenians were, in fact, his real enemy. Minor lived in New York during 1867 and 1868, when the local papers frequently covered events pertaining to the revolutionary movement in Ireland and to activities of the Irish in New York. In March of 1867 the Irish cause held the front page of just about every newspaper every day. It was during the week of March 18 that the expectation of a Fenian attack on Canada, still part of the British Empire at that time, appeared in at least three separate articles in three different papers. News of U.S. troops being moved from New York to the border to thwart the offensive also made headlines. That Minor would have been selected to assist in the battlefield action against the Fenians is not unlikely. This attack never took place however, less than a year before, the Fenians had staged an assault on Canada from New York State. Eight hundred Irishmen crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. They were subsequently defeated by U.S. troops, and about 700 Fenians were arrested. Minor would have known of this. Winchester mentions the American vice-consul-general and quotes a letter of his to the Medical Superintendent of Broadmoor, but neglects to cite his name, which is Joshua Nunn. Winchester also failed to locate a series of twenty-two letters by Joshua Nunn, an important source of information regarding Minor. The letters to Minor¿s family and friends in America contain particulars that conflict with some of Winchester¿s assumptions regarding Minor¿s life at Broadmoor and his relations with his family. Joshua Nunn clearly went beyond the call of duty in his assistance to, and profound concern for, Minor. Nunn was the man who handled all the details of Minor¿s legal situation as well as Minor¿s living conditions at Broadmoor. He was also very involved in the press account
Guest More than 1 year ago
I never realized how much work was needed to make a dictionary or any reference book at all, until I read The Professor and the Madman. This book has a good explanation on how the Oxford English Dictionary, the most complete dictionary of the English language was started. Now that may not make for a very interesting story, but the events that took place, and the people involved with this historical event are interesting. The story is told somewhat slow, and may not make for a very easy read because of it, but the book picks up and becomes much more interesting when you learn more about Dr. Minor and James Murray. The tales of Dr. Minor make for a very interesting story alone. Dr. Minor lived on the island of Ceylon until he was fourteen, when he was sent to live in New England. He went to Yale and became a surgeon, and served at the Battle of Wilderness in 1864 where his mental problems most likely started. At one point he had to brand Irish deserters during the war which contributed to his dementia later in life. After looking at some information Dr. Minor I found one thing that the author left out. At one point in the book the author wonders how Dr. Minor could have had such knowledge on dictionaries, but he contributed to The Great American Dictionary before moving to England to try to recover from his problems. The theme of the book is the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the tale of schizophrenic Dr. Minor and James Murray. I liked reading about the doctor and his problems it was an interesting topic, though Murray¿s wasn¿t as interesting there are several details that make for a good read. The parts about the history of the Dictionary before Minor was involved weren¿t too interesting, but it was somewhat necessary. One other thing that made this hard to read was the fact that it is a very hard book to read if you don¿t have a very big vocabulary. There are a lot of seldom used words for everyday vocabulary, and many I had never heard before. I would recommend this book to anybody who is interested in reading a history of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the impact it had on the time period or just tales of mental problems.
RaineMH More than 1 year ago
Great historical read, a little dry-but once you get over that, the actual content, time line, and drama is captivating.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is hard to make a book about the mundane labor of creating a dictionary very interesting. Winchester does do it. Fascinating story and the author corrects some popular myths about it.
The_hibernators More than 1 year ago
The Professor and the Madman is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the “dangerous lunatic” that was a major contributor of entries to the dictionary. It was a fascinating narrative—well told with an interesting and educational topic. I think there were parts where Winchester waxed a bit dramatic or put in theories based upon conjecture rather than fact…but that is what journalists do, after all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I first starting reading, I expected to be bored but was pleasantly surprised. The book and story flows nicely and kept me engaged after the first few pages. I became intrigued with the organization and the process of compiling the dictionary. Imagine describing and defining every word in the English language using volunteer writers and no computers to organized the process. The story and the relationship between the Professor and the Madman hold it all together. A good read. 2/28/2012
doc_rock More than 1 year ago
What a great story. Fact is more often than not, stranger than fiction. Very much enjoyed this story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Everything by Simon Winchester is worth reading. His topics are original, each different from the last, and good value for time spent. Once again, I enjoyed the book very much.
McQuigg More than 1 year ago
I usually think of dictionaries - if I think of them at all - as "just being there". But where did they come from? How did they get written? This book describes the amazing origins of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the men instrumental in its creation. An absolutely fascinating read for anyone interested in words, dictionaries, or just the history of things.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This author is one of the best non-fiction writers. I rarely read non-fiction because it is frequently densely written and boring. This is never the case with Simon Winchester. This book is amazing for anyone who cares about the English language and the original Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The true and stunning story is of a mental patient/prisoner who contributed monumentally to the OED.
nhofley More than 1 year ago
Overall, the book was very interesting. I would have never picked this out for myself to read. But that's the great thing about book clubs, you push yourself to reach out to discover something new. The Professor and the Madman is a very interesting story that in the beginning, is difficult to follow. Why I say this is because, the beginning is about how the dictionary came about. It's own little history, that I found to be very dull and lifeless. It's not until about a quarter of the way through the book that the 'story' really starts. I was hoping that the author was going to go into a little more detail about the letters written between the two main characters and how people felt, who were working on the dictionary, about a volunteer in an insane asylum that was helping with the dictionary. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen and is discussed briefly. The author does do a good job with description of what the characters looked like and what they might have been feeling going through the 'similar' situations they were in. I really liked the comparisons between the two; which offered great discussion within my book club.
VivalaErin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very interesting take on the most impressive dictionary I have ever seen, and my university just kept one of the compressed versions out for use (still at least 14 inches thick though). This book was used for a book review assignment with my Composition II class, and they thoroughly enjoyed it. It was nice to learn the true story behind the myth of how James Murray and William Minor truly met, became friends, and worked together for so long. I've always been interested in etymology and lexicography, and putting something together on the same scale of the OED is such an interesting topic. A nice read, and it reads very quickly and easily for a history book.
The_Hibernator on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Professor and the Madman is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the ¿dangerous lunatic¿ that was a major contributor of entries to the dictionary. It was a fascinating narrative¿well told with an interesting and educational topic. I think there were parts where Winchester waxed a bit dramatic or put in theories based upon conjecture rather than fact¿but that is what journalists do, after all. :) Quite worth the read. 4.5/5 stars.
Sapiens1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Required reading! A great book. A little slow, but an important historical account of the development of the OED. Very memorable and I have recommended this book to many word-loving friends.
artistlibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As someone who never uses dictionaries because she finds them dull and loaded with complicated abbreviations, I thought Winchester's story would be much the same. However, I truly enjoyed getting to know Professor Murray and W.C. Minor; their long distance relationship by letter was focused on apt quotations for well-defined words, but it's apparent their correspondence meant much more to both men.
Bodagirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It was a good quick read that focused on the two men, Capt. Minor and Prof. Murray, and their relationship (though that only took up the last third of the book). I would have liked more evidence of scholarship (footnotes and citations), and photos would have been nice.
LauraDragonWench on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An American Civil War veteran, incarcerated in an insane asylum in Victorian England for a murder he committed in a fit of (what would be recurring) insanity, makes an enormous and invaluable contribution to the greatest and most ambitious literary project of the English-speaking world: the Oxford English Dictionary. Author Simon Winchester has taken this curious bit of trivia, relegated in the past to a mere footnote in the history of the OED, and written an intriguing and ultimately tragic story about Dr. W.C. Minor. A brilliant, talented, but severely flawed man, his story is one of obsession, his slow and inevitable descent into madness, and the amazing confluence of events that allowed him to have a hand in the creation of the first comprehensive English-language dictionary. However, Dr. Minor wasn't alone in this endeavour and so the book explores his other half, Professor James Murray, the editor of the OED, another brilliant and obsessive man whose drive helped shaped the project; a man who was a contemporary of Dr. Minor's, with a life oddly similar in many ways to his, yet with a dramtically different outcome. Interwoven is a brief yet enlightening history of lexicography and the desire to quantify the English language. For a scholarly and in-depth examination on lexicography, one should instead turn to the books listed in Winchester's bibliography; however, if you'd like to read about a curious happenstance which lead to the making of the OED and literary history, this is the book for you.
JBD1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another good one from Winchester - possibly his best.
nesum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This isn't one of those books I would normally grab from off the shelf, except that I knew enough people who had read it to pique my interest.It is about the making of a dictionary -- the dictionary, rather: The Oxford English Dictionary -- and one particular man who helped make it possible from a cell in a mental institution.Simon Winchester's wonderful style makes this story come alive. He shows us Dr. W. C. Minor, a scholar, murderer, and madman, for the tragic and sympathetic character that he was. This book is an achievement, and one that should be cherished, even if the subject matter may normally sound like a dull one.
eas311 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Winchester is a really amazing author. He has a talent for focusing on the STORY part of history, so his tales are engaging and full of details and asides that bring them to life.You wouldn't think that a book about the making of a dictionary would be that exciting, but it really was. (Also it helps that I'm a nerd.)
wdwilson3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thought that this was a marvelously written little history, full of intriguing characters and interesting events. So I was more than a little surprised just now to read the reviews on LibraryThing, or the numerous negative ones at least. This probably indicates nothing more than the diverse tastes represented in the reviewers, so my only addition will be brief. If you enjoy historical sidelights, well researched and capably written, I think you will enjoy Winchester¿s book. I don¿t often award five stars, but have for this one.
SilversReviews on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is excellent for any word lover, but is a bit stilted and detailed. It was very clever how the author put a page from the dictionary as the beginning of each chapter and the subject of that chapter dealt with the word. From page 220..."The total length of type--all hand-set, for the books were done by letterpress, still discernible in the delicately impressed feel of the inked-on paper--is 178 miles, the distance between London and the outskirts of Manchester."Dr. Minor, the madman, was an interesting character and the perfect person to "write" the English Oxford Dictionary...the professor, (Professor Murray) was perfect as well. You feel sorry for Dr. Minor in his circumstances, but rejoice at what he did. His death and burial are described as this: From Page 219..."Dr. William Minor, who was among the greatest of contributors to the finest dictionary in all the English language, died forgotten in obscurity, and is buried beside a slum."It isn't of high interest, but keeps you reading because of the history.I was wavering between a 2 and a 3 but am going with 3/5 rating.
the_awesome_opossum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Professor and the Madman is the fascinating true story of the making of the OED, and of Dr. William Minor, who contributed close to ten thousand entries while he was locked up in an insane asylum. It's a very quick read, and more space could have been allotted both to Minor's crime, trial, and madness; and to the conditions of asylums in nineteenth-century London. But this is a great book, an interesting story with plenty of good research behind it, and I appreciate that it records the unusual story of W.C. Minor, who otherwise would be an unfairly obscure character in history
Griff on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An incredible story, and one which is true. Winchester does a remarkable job of bringing this tale of the Oxford English Dictionary to life. The surprising contributor and the OED editor are the key characters in this story that often reads like a novel. For anyone who loves words and a great story, this is the perfect book. I have recommended this book to many friends. One of the best books I have read over the years. If you have not read it yet, you should. More than ever, I desire one day to purchase the complete OED - multiple volumes and all.