Enjoy this title right now, plus millions more, with a free trial

Only $9.99/month after trial. Cancel anytime.

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

Published by HarperAudio


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

Published by HarperAudio

ratings:
4/5 (213 ratings)
Length:
7 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Jan 13, 2004
ISBN:
9780060756321
Format:
Audiobook

Description

National Bestseller!

One of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters, the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, and drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story.

Professor James Murray was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors to the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, hand-written quotations from his home. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray's offer was regularly, mysteriously, refused.

Finally, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray would finally learn the truth about Minor . . . that, in addition to being a masterly wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane - and locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest 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. Written with riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester delivers a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary.

Publisher:
Released:
Jan 13, 2004
ISBN:
9780060756321
Format:
Audiobook

Related to The Professor and The Madman

Related Audiobooks

Related Articles


Reviews

What people think about The Professor and The Madman

4.1
213 ratings / 159 Reviews
What did you think?
Rating: 0 out of 5 stars

Reader reviews

  • (4/5)
    Simon Winchester is not a linear writer. Instead, he likes to weave back and forth from the main story to different background stories that do end up coming back to the main story...eventually. What I found fascinating was the background story of two men that were geniuses that come from opposite backgrounds and end up having a twenty year friendship. At times I felt bogged down and this is not a book to be read in a week end."I am nobody, treat me as a solar myth, or an echo, or an irrational quantity, or ignore me altogether". Throughout the book, it is clear we can not ignore a man like James Murray. He left school at the age of fourteen, became self taught through numerous books, tried to teach Latin to cows, he was fluent in several languages including many dead languages, he taught himself geology, biology, entomology, and because of his love for words among being a very learned man, was instrumental in creating the greatest dictionary of our time.William Chester Minor was also a genius but was also insane. Throughout the book, we get to see a background of his life growing up, what he saw as a doctor in the Civil War during a battle called "The Wilderness". Perhaps this is what threw him over the edge into insanity, although I would guess that it was a perfect storm of circumstances throughout his life that drove him over the edge into insanity, perhaps it was in his mind all along.What I found fascinating about this book was the history of the dictionaries before the OED. I have learned so many things in this book of 242 pages that seemed more like an 800 page book. The Irish who fought in the Civil War (I have a new appreciation for the Irish and a better understanding of why so many deserted), Sri Lanka, the history of the dictionary, lexicography, branding in the civil war...the list goes on and on.It is a book I can only read once, however it is a book that I own so I can go back to it for reference from time to time. I am in awe of the men and women who volunteered their time, James Murray, William Minor and the men who came before them who were the stepping stones before the OED. The OED took seventy years to complete! For those that love words, love history, love the OED, this book is for you!
  • (5/5)
    Author Simon Winchester, a self-described adventurer, takes what could otherwise seem lexicographical drudgery, the 70 plus year making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and turns it into a relatively compact fascinating story about this massive undertaking and the men (and women) behind it. He weaves the broader story about cataloging the English language with a more narrow tale about the Professor (the editor James Murray) with the Madman (major contributor William Minor, an American doctor, Civil War Veteran, murderer, and schizophrenic). This book works on multiple levels. It is at once a great narrative about the massive etymological study of our native language and a fascinating and strange story of great, though in the case of Minor extremely disturbed, men. The story is at once tragic and triumphant, one of great accomplishment and personal tragedy. Winchester takes a topic that looks like it could weigh you down and indeed turns it into a bit of an intellectual adventure.
  • (3/5)
    When the idea of the Oxford English Dictionary was first proposed it was very clear that it was a mammoth undertaking: every word that existed (or had ever existed) in the English language was to be documented, with quotations illustrating each nuanced meaning that the word might have, and in particular illustrating when the word had first appears in English. It was clear to the newly appointed editor, James Murray, that this task could not be done by paid staff alone: volunteers were sought from all corners of the English speaking world to read the required books and send in quotations. One of those that answers the call was Dr W.C.Minor, an American army surgeon who gave his address only as Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire. These days, at least for a British reader, the name Broadmoor immediately conjures up images of the most notorious criminals, as it’s the best known of the high security psychiatric hospitals in the U.K. In the second half of the nineteenth century, it was the newly built Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, and presumably not as well known, as James Murray and Dr W.C. Minor were in correspondence for some years before Murray realised that Minor was not the retired doctor with time on his hands that he had always supposed. The truth was that Minor had been committed to Broadmoor after shooting a man in London: in a celebrated trial he had been found not guilty on grounds of insanity (although everyone including himself had been quite clear that he had carried out the shooting), but had been detained ‘at her majesty’s pleasure’ as a danger to the public.The book outlines Minor’s history and speculates on what had brought him to his reduced state, and also what had brought Murray to his rather more exalted one. To be honest, I could have done with a little more of Murray’s story. As the son of a Scottish draper he certainly wouldn’t have been expected to have ended up as Sir James Murray, and the most famous editor of what proved to be one of the most monumental accomplishments in the English language. It’s an interesting story, but I wasn’t overly enamoured of Simon Winchester’s telling of it, although I did find the mechanics of the compilation of the dictionary fascinating. He’s very much of the school of writing that thinks if one sentence is good, five sentences will be better. It’s not what you call concise. And male readers should be warned, there’s a bit in the middle that you might find a little bit upsetting ...
  • (4/5)
    Fascinating story, even if not an etymologist.
  • (5/5)
    Interesting and full of trivia about the Oxford English Dictionary. It was also a bit of a mind twist to find out that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were writing without the use of a dictionary until "The First English Dictionary 1604: Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall" was published, and even that was pretty slim and they probably didn't even have access to it.The titular madman William Chester Minor (pictured on the cover of most editions) was an ex-Union army surgeon suffering from what we would now likely call PTSD and paranoiac schizophrenia. During the course of his incarceration in England for a murder, he contributed some tens of thousands of usage quotations to Oxford thanks to a volunteer call-out that had been made to readers by the editors who were compiling the dictionary. Eventually he was tracked down by the editor James Murray and a friendship ensued until Minor was eventually transferred to an asylum in America.
  • (3/5)
    This is an amusing account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, a mental marvel enjoyed by millions. Now, since the OED is online, the massive book is gaining many new fans. The particular episode described here is also an illustration that a form of mental illness is no great bar to some forms of scholarship. I'll reread, but under its real Title "the PROFESSOR and the Madman"! (can someone fix this, please?)
  • (4/5)
    Human interest background to the story of the creation of the OED. The editors relied upon an army of volunteer readers to identify words and illustrative quotations. One of the most critical of these, Dr. Minor, had his own story.Best read after familiarity with the general background of the seventy year editorial challenged to the OED's production, such as that found in this author's later The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • (5/5)
    A great story, and of particular interest to anyone who loves the English language!
  • (3/5)
    I really wish Goodreads would let us give half-stars! Another 3.5 book for me. I never gave a moment's thought to how a dictionary is created. But it is really a fascinating topic. And both the professor and the madman were interesting, as well. I just couldn't stick with the writing though. Sometimes it was engrossing and sometimes I felt like the author got stuck and pulled out his thesaurus, which brought my reading progress to a halt. A friend pointed out some editing lapses, as well. So, I generally enjoyed the book and thought it was interesting. Maybe even a little nerdy? If you enjoy words and sometimes search for just the right one, and if you enjoy learning about a different subject, I definitely think you should give this book a try. If you are looking for the next big thriller and were attracted by the word "Madman" in the title, you should move along.
  • (4/5)
    An interesting insight to the development of the Oxford English Dictionary via one of its key contributors - an insane American military doctor. A fascinating story well told.
  • (4/5)
    This is the remarkable story of Dr Minor an american doctor and soldier who was committed to Broadmoor for nearly 30 years and whilst there used his extensive book collection and time to make a significant contribution to what became the Oxford English Dictionary.
    Simon Winchester weaves around this the story of lexicography and the development of the OED in particular and the story of the great editor James Murray
  • (4/5)
    An entertaining, easy to read, fast paced, (non-fiction) tale of how W.C. Minor with schizophrenia (most likely) helped Sir Murray write large portions of the Oxford English Dictionary. Minor's story is sad, and sad all around, but at least out of his 'insane asylum' incarceration, and his mental disease and the unfortunate murder of George Merrett, a lot of good came out of it - in the sake of his extreme help in quote gathering and writing for the OED, without him it most likely wouldn't have gotten completed. Even still it took some 70-71 years for it to get accomplished.
  • (4/5)
    A very interesting story about the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary. Of particular interest (in my view) was the method in which members of the public read various books and collected quotations and sent them in, so it was an example of what we now call crowd-sourcing for a very traditional application. The story focuses around a surgeon, who has various adventures and then goes insane. He is one of the biggest contributors to the dictionary. I found the story both sad and heart-warming - well worth a read.
  • (4/5)
    This account of the making of the first Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was far more interesting than the subject matter would lead you to believe. Before reading this book I had never contemplated how one would go about compiling a dictionary. Now I know, at least in the case of the OED. There were hundreds of people around England who scoured books and other writings for the first use of a particular word. The chief contributor though was an American, Dr. W. C. Minor, who was confined to an insane asylum because he had killed someone in England. Minor corresponded with Dr. J.A.H. Murray who was in charge of the huge dictionary project and Murray realized that the madman could be put to use which would give him some occupation that might alleviate his insane impulses. This did not entirely work because in 1902, under the delusion he was being forced to have sexual congress with children, he cut off his own penis.
  • (4/5)
    In many ways, this is a great read simply because it's an entertaining book full of strange and interesting tidbits of knowledge. The problem is just as clear, though--there are so many interesting stories and directions which the book is pulled in, that in the end, none of them are given the depth a reader really wants. Whether you're most interested in the creation of the OED or the friendship between the two men at the heart of the book's title, or even trivia surrounding both, the book explores so much territory, and is so short, that I doubt any reader will be fully satisfied. Still, it is a fun and fast read with plenty of interesting trivia, if not the depth or full story that the book's title and blurb seem to promise.All together, I'm glad I read it, but I wish it had been a bit more substantial.
  • (4/5)
    The evolution of the disctionary and the crazy guy who built it. Fascinating.
  • (4/5)
    Fascinating book about a book that has shaped our world. Makes you appreciate how much our language shapes our reality. And how much work went into making it as good as it became (a standard).
  • (3/5)
    The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
    288 pages

    ★★★ ½

    The compilation of the OED began in 1857; it was an ambitious project that would take 70 years to complete. Within that time, one contributor would put in thousands of hours and words – with time it would be learned that this contributor, William Minor was an intelligent doctor…who was also locked up in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. This book follows the life of the doctor, the professor who was editor of the OED at the time and the making of the huge dictionary.

    I will start off by saying I loved the subject of this book. I like any book that can take a little known, or forgotten, part of history and bring it back into light but the question is can the author pull those subjects off? In this case, I will say that Simon Winchester pulled off a well written, interesting book. With that being said, I am not particularly a fan of the author. I have read a few of his books and this is the first I came across that was interesting enough and written well enough not to put me into snoozefest as soon as I open the book. Also, the author rarely references his studies and that irritates me so much, if I don’t know where you got your sources, I have trouble believing the context (if I didn’t reference my material in college, it was an automatic F!). And I question any historian who can pull off a book every year or two – researching and writing these books is a loooong process if done correctly, even if you have minion running around to help with research.

    So my final thought on the book? Fascinating subject and I will say actually worth the read if you are into history or biographies; however the author’s lack of references and need to just become a “popular” history writer leaves a poor taste in my mouth and caused me to easily knock a star off my rating.
  • (4/5)
    Wonderful book. Winchester has an engaging style that brings the history of two word lovers to life. This is an amazing, personal story about a book that changed the way e understand language. Brilliant
  • (5/5)
    THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN reads like a chilling psychological murder mystery, yet it fully illuminates the early history of the OED and its legions of volunteers.Comparing the cover photographs on this book and Winchester's followup, THE MEANING OF EVERYTHING, is like a Who's Who puzzle.Many will not agree that we should be "glad" that a man was so incredibly "mad."
  • (4/5)
    The professor of the title is James Murray, who organized and oversaw the writing of the OED (or much of it anyway, he did not live to see it completed), and the "madman" is W.C. Minor, an American army surgeon incarcerated in an English asylum for the insane, who contributed prodigious research to the OED as it was being written. For me the most fascinating bits of the book (by far) were those about the compiling of the OED itself--of how Murray and co. went about finding words, cataloging them, pinning down earliest usages. I would have happily read in more detail about that and about the difficulties (alluded to by Winchester) that certain words caused. That Minor contributed so thoroughly (the amount of work he did is impressive, but so is the amount of work that anyone did on the OED) while institutionalized, that he could be both so sick (he was most likely what we'd call today schizophrenic) and so productive at the same time, strikes me as a footnote to the story--a fascinating one, certainly, and one worth a few pages to flesh out and bring home the scale of the thing, but a footnote still. I wasn't wowed by Winchester's writing or his telling of the story, so perhaps the issue lies there rather than with the story itself. A disappointing read for me.
  • (3/5)
    I felt like this was sensationalized too much in parts. Granted, that's why I read the book in the first place ("What?! A madman wrote the OED?!"), but I wanted Winchester to suppose less and tell more. I think the content is rich enough in drama and information to support itself without the author dropping his oar in and imagining the feelings of those involved or how things must have smelled. Perhaps these interjections were few and far between, but for me, they were extremely noticeable and vexing.

    In the end though, I enjoyed learning about the OED.
  • (5/5)
    One of my favorite types of books.
    History of beginning of Oxford Dictionary.
    Not something that had ever crossed my mind, but now I wonder why not ?
    Interesting interactions with the "Mad Man" and the unfolding of his story.
    A Recommend.
    Read in 2009.
  • (3/5)
    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.
  • (5/5)
    Gripping narrative that carries you in elegant style and comfort through the overlapping histories of two impressive men and the most impressive book ever written. I loved every sentence!!
  • (4/5)
    Its a fun read - nothing to fantastic, but the story is good. The characters in it are not quite large enough to warrant their own book - if the author focused more on the Oxford dictionary, rather than the two men, I think this book would have been quite awesome.The writing is tight, the story, while a bit bland, is interesting. I think fans of the OED will like the story.
  • (4/5)
    A tale of murder, madness and The Oxford English Dictionary: such is the full title of Simon Winchester’s intriguingly titled ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’, a book all about, well, murder, madness and the OED, though there’s more on the latter than the former.What’s it about?Lexicographer James Murray is attempting to compile the first OED, a vast undertaking that eventually consumes 70 years and is not completed until 12 years after his death. During this struggle, Murray communicates extensively with many keen contributors, but builds a particular friendship with one: Dr William Minor of Crowthorne. As well as being a star contributor to the important dictionary, Minor is a lunatic, consigned to stay indefinitely at Broodmoor lunatic asylum after committing a murder.This is a book partly about their friendship, partly about that murder, but mostly about the making of the mighty OED.What’s it like?Detailed, thoughtful and written in such a way that you are drawn into Minor’s affairs with a sympathetic eye.It’s slow-going as the book has multiple beginnings: an extract from a call for contributors to the dictionary is followed by a preface; the preface briefly outlines the mythology surrounding Murray and Minor’s first meeting and implies this book will offer revelations regarding the truth of that meeting; this is followed by a chapter detailing the life and murder of George Merrett, which of course introduces Minor; this is followed by a chapter outlining James Murray’s early life and the beginning of his involvement with the dictimary; THIS is followed by the murderer’s relevant history until that point; then there is a chapter outlining the very beginnings of the concept of the new dictionary. In short, nearly 90 pages have passed before the story truly gathers steam as some of the key participants (Murray and the dictionary) properly come together.Such length is not simply the result of having to introduce various characters – including a book! – but is rather due to Winchester’s delight in minor details and speculation. He writes that Minor ‘selected a pen with the very finest nib’ to send his first words to the dictionary. Perhaps. Even probably. And perhaps not. More importantly, he suggests that the view from Minor’s suite at Broodmoor must have meant Minor’s sentence ‘cannot have seemed altogether a nightmare’. Hmm. I’m not sure a good view, even an excellent view, would detract one’s attention too much from the horror of being committed indefinitely to a lunatic asylum in a foreign country. Still, such intimate touches help to bring the characters and the events to life, making potentially very dry material more engaging, though they do sometimes lend the writing a slightly fictional air.Perhaps appropriately, the ending is also a drawn-out affair with a chapter called ‘Then Only The Monuments’, which is primarily concerned with the deaths of the major characters, followed by a postscript, followed by an author’s note, followed by suggestions for further reading. This, then, is a leisurely read, one which will reward readers with the time and patience to piece together all the relevant details in their minds.Final thoughtsI had never realised dictionaries took so long to write and found the details Winchester included about the methods used were generally interesting, though I skimmed some of the biographical bits (I don’t much care where Minor or Murray grew up or how many siblings they had) and felt there were more examples of definitions than I particularly cared for. (It seems I am not a lexicographer at heart.)This will be of most interest to those with a love of words and a love of history, though there is also some interesting discussion about Minor’s illness, finally revealed to be what we would now call schizophrenia. Towards the end of the book in particular Winchester discusses Minor’s illness in broader terms than in the preceding chapters, considering what triggers such mental disorders as schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and how they might be treated differently today.Overall it’s a pleasant meander through a bit of literary history, replete with imaginative embroiderings at the edges.
  • (4/5)
    A quick and easy read. Each chapter begins with an aposite definition. More about the making of the OED than I ever knew before. Sometimes the writing seems careless; occasionally funny. The crowd-sourcing part was neat, rendering it an early cousin to the open-source movement.
  • (5/5)
    This book was excellently written. It kept me interested from the beginning to the end. I had no idea how recently the Oxford English Dictionary came into being. We read today and if there is a word we do not understand, we pick up the dictionary to look it up. It was interesting to know that Shakespeare did not have this luxury.

    The characters in the book evolve nicely. The book left me wondering what the life of W.C. Minor was really like. How is it that he contributed so much to the Oxford English Dictionary from an insane asylum. I was left wondering what the emotions must have been as Sir James Murray realized that he was dealing with a madman in the creation of the dictionary, yet W.C. Minor's submissions to the dictionary were near perfection. Other volunteers that contributed were not as precise.

    This book will entertain you in the history of how the Oxford English Dictionary was created. Who was involved? How long did it really take? What methods did they use to document all those words? Does it continue today? It was a fascinating read!

    In line with the story of creating the dictionary, there were several words that were challenging and needed to be looked up for their precise meaning for the story. I don't see this as a negative but it did remind me of my limited vernacular. I hope that whomever reads this tome will find it as interesting as I did. It taught me that even something as minor in every day life, something we usually do not give much thought to, such as the dictionary, really shouldn't be taken for granted.
  • (4/5)
    This nonfiction book tackles the concurrent stories of Sir James Murray, the longtime editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and Dr. William Minor, a frequent contributor to the dictionary, who also happened to murder a man in cold blood when suffering from a delusional state. While exploring the friendship between these two men, the book also touches upon etymology (of course) and the history of dictionaries in the English language, the American Civil War and the cruelties seen there, and the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. This book certainly talked about a number of interesting things, and I appreciated how so much context was given to surround the meeting of these two great linguistic minds. For instance, a fascinating subject was the history of dictionaries: how for centuries people didn't have a reference source for looking up the meaning of any given word and how dictionaries started to slowly come in to being much later. The monumental task of the compiling and writing of the OED was even more apparent after this discussion. In addition, there were tons of other compelling factoids scattered here and there, including everything from the crime statistics in the Lamberth district of London while Minor was living there to information about the modern modes of treating Minor's mental illness (he essentially had undiagnosed and untreated schizophrenia). However, where the book suffered was in presentation of all this information. The specific writing style in terms of sentence structure, etc. was certainly fine and, being a word nerd (like I assume many of this book's audience to be!), I enjoyed how each chapter began by defining a key word in it using the OED entry. But the issue was the chronology -- Winchester did not choose to offer the information up in a strictly chronological order. It made for a messy read in which Winchester seemed to be building up to a big reveal in one chapter, except that the reveal had been already told in a previous one, or in which key information showed up much later than would have been helpful. In addition, I personally would have liked just a little bit more time spent discussing the men's early lives rather than the super quick overviews given.Overall though, I enjoyed this book and appreciated reading about some lesser known historical figures whose contributions were nonetheless plenty noteworthy. The book reads rather quickly and is full of interesting information as well as some suppositions from Winchester regarding things like motivations. I would recommend it for fans of words and literature as well as history buffs.