Friday, January 7, 2011

The Professor and the Madman

By Simon Winchester

The Oxford English Dictionary (or OED, for those in the know) is arguably the most epic* book in the English language. In fact, it kind of IS the English language. In its current publication, the OED is a twenty-volume dictionary containing 291,500 entries on 21,730 pages, the longest of which being for the word set, whose 430 varying uses is described in 60,000 words. The first edition was published in installments beginning in 1888 and then in its entirety in 1928. This is the story of its conception, and of the men that nurtured it and brought it to life.

Amassing and cataloguing the entirety of the English language and its evolution throughout history was no small undertaking. To ease their burden and speed things along (the dictionary was begun with a planned timeline of 5 years, which it exceeded by a good 65), Professor James Murray and his team of editors appealed to the English-speaking world for volunteers to submit definitions and quotations demonstrating usage of "rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, or peculiar” words, of which they received over 3.5 million. Curiously, of those 3.5 million, tens of thousands were submitted by a single man – a certain Dr. W. C. Minor. Dr. Minor became an indispensible aid to the OED committee, and though he kept up a correspondence with Professor Murray on all things pertaining to the dictionary for well over a decade, he managed to decline or overlook Murray’s every proposition to meet. It wasn’t until Murray offered to make the visit himself that the veil of mystery around his most prolific assistant was lifted. Arriving at the return address from which so many thousands contributions had come, he found not the charming country estate of a well-off retired gentleman he expected, but an insane asylum. Dr. Minor had been an inmate at Broadmoor Hospital for the criminally insane for the previous 20 years.

Intriguing premise, no? And made all the more so because it’s true. If only the execution had lived up to it. Maybe the problem was the discrepancy between my expectations and the reality of what the book was. I was expecting a novel, perhaps focusing on the characterization of these two fascinating men and the improbable circumstances that connected them (Dr. Minor was not even an Englishman – he had been an American army surgeon in the civil war and come to England to “clear his head” before getting trapped there after the shooting that landed him in Broadmoor). I wanted the whole incredible story brought to life for me, in vivid and sometimes lurid detail. Instead, what I got was part biography, part non-fiction history book. The chapters on the lives of James Murray and Dr. Minor were impersonal and wholly lacking in sensationalism, and they were interspersed with even drier chapters outlining a recap of lexicographical** history. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never exactly mourned my lack of knowledge in that field. I know more about dictionaries now than I ever cared to, and this coming from someone who periodically browses in her free time. I will admit that I was duly impressed with Winchester’s vocabulary, though. More than once I came across words I didn’t recognize – a somewhat uncommon experience for me. He clearly spent some time curling up with the OED in the researching of this book. That being said, even though I’ll concede that things might have gone better if I’d known what I was getting into, I think the story of Dr. Minor and the OED would have made a much better novel than historical biography.

*Epic, n. Of unusually great size or extent; heroic; majestic; impressively great.
**Lexicography, n. The writing, editing, or compiling of dictionaries.

Books Read This Year: 4
Top 100 Progress: 38/100

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