Friday, November 6, 2009

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

Imagine writing an English dictionary… the first English dictionary. Where do you start? I have already used ten words—sixteen if you count the introduction of this sentence before the m-dash—of what would be the tens of thousands… millions even… of entries needed to complete such a mind-boggling enterprise. Remember, there are no antecedents on which to draw your list, no previous incarnation from which to compare, to see what worked and what didn’t, so as to make appropriate amendments. Where do you get the words? The definitions? Who proves their accuracy? How will you know when the job is complete? You’d have to be insane to even consider the assignment.

This was the monumental endeavor facing the men who created the Oxford English Dictionary, a task chronicled in the fascinating The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. Begun in 1958, the OED, as it is affectionately known in belletristic circles, would take seventy years and twelve capacious tomes to finish, with an additional five supplements produced in the ensuing years, which were incorporated into the original dozen a score thereafter for the second edition. And though neither the work’s overseer, James Murray, nor any of its principals were mad, the OED’s most prolific contributor was certifiably so.

To the shepherds of the OED, it wasn’t enough simply to account for a word and define it. Oh, no, that would be too easy! They added quotations, culled from the greatest writings of history, to best exemplify the particular usage of each entry. To this end they enlisted the help of volunteers throughout the country, to contribute clippings for those words with which Murray and his colleagues needed aid gathering information. One such participant was Dr. William Chester Minor, an American and former surgeon for the Union Army during the Civil War, living in England.

Minor sent in scads of quotes—his contribution to the OED cannot be overstated—done with such exactitude, that the OED team was able to utilize his offerings with little if any editing. As more and more entries attained Dr. Minor’s signature, Murray became more inclined to meet this philological wonder. The doctor’s attempts to dissuade Murray’s intentions of visitation did naught to flag the professor’s persistence, nor did it seem abnormally peculiar to Murray. After all, he was a word nerd himself.

Even discovering that the address to which Dr. Minor directed him was that of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum didn’t overly concern Murray. He simply felt that the institution was the good doctor’s place of employ. Imagine his shock upon learning that the man to whom the professor was directed upon arrival was not Dr. Minor, but rather the facility’s director and that he would be escorting Murray to the room of Dr. Minor, a patient of Broadmoor for more than twenty years!

The stories of the American surgeon who goes mad, and the humble son of a Scottish tailor who becomes one of England’s most prominent scholars, and how these disparate lives cross is captivating. Winchester’s narrative is concise, not flowery, and compliments the subject matter nicely. Using interstitial moments to explain words, their histories and usage, including excerpted definitions from the OED itself, the author neatly conveys the onerous task Murray and company set for themselves. And though they sometimes bog down the story with their dryness, for a philologist like myself, they enhanced rather than took away from my enjoyment of the book.

The Professor and the Madman gets three and a half chelicerate arthropods.

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