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Book Review
Sunday, September 15, 2013
"The Professor and The Madman" details the men behind the meanings

"There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner, wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic." Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

To those of us fortunate enough to have either created manuscripts or simply enjoyed and marveled at the creations of others, words are both exciting and magical. So you can imagine our reaction when one of our neighbors briefly described a book he had recently read about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and then offered to lend it to us.

The book had the unlikely title of "The Professor And The Madman." Within days it had worked its way to the top of our reading list. Once we started reading it, we had trouble putting it down.

The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The project began in 1857 and took 70 years to complete. Its editors drew from tens of thousands of the most brilliant minds of the period and ultimately organized the sprawling English language into 414,825 precise definitions.

Editor James Murray is the titular professor. He accepted the mountainous job of creating the first completely comprehensive dictionary of the English language. The job turned out to be much larger than he anticipated so Murray put out a call for unpaid volunteer labor. Thousands of volunteer readers responded.

One of Murray's most prolific and long-lasting contributors was Dr. William C. Minor, who responded to the request and would contribute more than 10,000 bits of valuable data over the next 30 years.

Minor was a retired U.S army officer and physician and man of means who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Minor began his contributions in 1880, sending neat, handwritten quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. A correspondence relationship developed between the two men. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, only to have his offer regularly and mysteriously refused. It wasn't until 1889 that Dr. Murray learned of Minor's true situation. He was no man of leisure. He was permanently incarcerated in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for the criminally insane, which was only 50 miles from Oxford. This son of American missionaries and alumnus of Yale had been found innocent by reason of insanity of murdering a stranger in a fit of paranoia. He now spent his time collecting books and making himself as comfortable in the asylum as possible. The two men continued to maintain a close relationship for the rest of their lives.

The book's author, Simon Winchester meticulously and painstakingly researched the story for "The Professor and The Madman," carefully detailing the circumstances of Minor's crime and making a case for his madness being rooted in his Civil War experiences.

-- Reviewed by David and Nancy Beckwith, authors of the Will and Betsy Black adventure series

The Professor And The Madman

By Simon Winchester

Harper Collins

242 pages $13

(paperback)