Page Turners

The Professor and the Madman Would Have Been a Great Article

When you look through the archive of the articles I’ve written so far, you’ll probably notice that there’s a glut of articles that comprise of me gushing about things that I love. Besides an average review of Ant-Man and several references to my loathing of Man of Steel, I’ve pretty much been focused on rambling about things that I love. Which is a good thing I think, I don’t really like to dwell that much on pieces of media that I don’t like. I would rather expound on things I love than things that made me mad to have wasted time on them. Now, I feel like this introduction is leading to a rant about how I hated something, which isn’t exactly the case. I’ll probably find things that piss me off and will compel me to spend time composing a bitter article about, but I feel like by and large things are going to stay positive here.


After finally finishing Infinite Jest, I decided I wanted something a little lighter and quicker to read, so I finally read a book that’s been sitting on my Kindle for a couple of years now. I first heard about this book on a podcast, I’m pretty sure the Cracked podcast that’s put out by Earwolf but I’m not 100% positive, and the concept was enough to get me to download a copy. The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Yep, I read a book about how the dictionary was made, because I know how to have a good time. The thing about this book is that it has a great premise. It’s nonfiction, telling the story that most people probably have never thought about. I certainly had never once thought about what it took to write a dictionary. It just seems like one of those things that have always existed, but as I started reading this book, I realized that it must have been a daunting experience. To catalogue and properly define every word in this crazy language of ours is a ridiculous task that most people would almost immediately give up on. It’s insane. And in the end it created something to so many people take for granted. But the book isn’t just about the dictionary, because that would probably be considered a prescribeable tranquilizer.

This book was about two men, Sir James Murray who was the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Dr. William Minor, an American Army surgeon who was one of the most prolific contributors to the dictionary. Because the method that they decided worked best for the dictionary was to put out a general call to arms to all speakers of the English language, asking them to go through all of their book, find words that they think were weird, write down a quote from the book with that word, and send it to Oxford for them to catalogue and define. So anyone could just crack open a book, find a word that they thought was neat, and send it on to Oxford to get added to this enormous book. And one such person who took to this lexographical treasure hunt was Dr. William Minor. Now, at this point in my description of the book it still sounds like this is a super dull book. But the thing about William Minor is that he was a delusional schizophrenic who had been imprisoned in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Berkshire, England. Minor was American, and had served in the Civil War as a doctor, but, according to him, after being forced to brand several Irishmen for desertion, he suffered a break from reality, and because convinced that he was eternally being hunted by invisible men who wanted to hurt him, and invisible women who wanted to make him sleep with them and sully his honor. This all came of a head after he was discharged from the military and went to live in England. While living in London, he regularly carried a loaded pistol, and shot and killed a man after assuming that he was one of his invisible pursuers. Minor then spent the rest of his life, forty-some years, in insane asylums. And it was in Broadmoor that he came across Murray’s project.

He then spent decades of his life combing through the library he was allowed to keep in the asylum, sending in a staggering amount of words to aid in the dictionaries creation. Sir Murray began betting an avalanche of submissions, all from a Dr. Minor who listed his address as the Broadmoor asylum, so he naturally assumed the man was a doctor there. He eventually found out that that was not the case, that Dr. Minor was an patient instead, but that didn’t really change anything .The two men became friends, Murray becoming really the only person that could calm Minor down at certain points in his life.

And that’s really all the interesting parts of the book. I just explained it all. Except for a strange part near the end where the increasingly insane Minor decides that the best course to shoo away the invisible women would be to cut his own penis off…which he does, the rest of the book was kind of odd. There are vast passages about failed dictionaries. There’s a lot of detail about Sir Murray’s life, which quite frankly, was pretty uneventful. And there was a lot of information about Dr. Minor’s life in the asylum when he wasn’t writing words down and sending them to Oxford. It’s just a little odd. The book was only about 250 pages, but boy did it drag. It was an interesting premise, but there really wasn’t enough meat for a whole book. It would have made a fascinating article, full of fun tidbits. But as a full book, it kind of fell flat. It was an okay book, but it felt rather rambling at times, like the author was struggling to get to a page limit. It was a fine book, but really, I’m just going to remember the main parts of the story, which was the premise that I heard on a podcast, and forget the rest of the book. I didn’t really gain anything from reading the book that I didn’t already have from hearing someone give a like, two minute summary of the story. If you’re super interested, check it out, but in my opinion, if you’ve read this article, you kind of get the gist of it, and there’s really nothing else to learn.

The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary was written by Simon Winchester and published by Penguin Books. In the UK it’s known as The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words.

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