The Professor And The Madman: A Tale Of Murder, Insanity, And The Making Of The Oxford English Dictionary by Simon WinchesterThe Professor And The Madman: A Tale Of Murder, Insanity, And The Making Of The Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

The Professor And The Madman: A Tale Of Murder, Insanity, And The Making Of The Oxford English…

bySimon Winchester

Hardcover | August 26, 1998

Pricing and Purchase Info


Earn 143 plum® points

In stock online

Ships free on orders over $25

Not available in stores


Mysterious (mistîe · ries), a. [f. L. mystérium Mysteryi + ous. Cf. F. mystérieux.]
1. Full of or fraught with mystery; wrapt in mystery; hidden from human knowledge or understanding; impossible or difficult to explain, solve, or discover; of obscure origin, nature, or purpose.

It is known as 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, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story--a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray's offer was regularly--and mysteriously--refused.

Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor--that, in addition to being a masterful 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. With riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary.

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa. Those books were New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. In 2006, Mr. Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Emp...
Title:The Professor And The Madman: A Tale Of Murder, Insanity, And The Making Of The Oxford English…Format:HardcoverDimensions:256 pages, 8.25 × 5.5 × 0.89 inPublished:August 26, 1998Publisher:HarperCollins

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0060175966

ISBN - 13:9780060175962

Look for similar items by category:


Rated 4 out of 5 by from A must read for anyone who likes words and dictionaries. What a fascinating slice of history. I never really thought about how complicated it would have been to create a dictionary, or what kind of people would be involved. While this story only delves into a very small part of the dictionaries creation, it expands upon the life and times of one of it's most prolific contributors, a clever man with some definite mental health issues.
Date published: 2017-08-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unique and Interesting An unusual story. I enjoyed reading about the history behind the dictionary and how much effort went into making it.
Date published: 2017-03-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor and the Madman I so enjoyed this book. I love words and strongly recommend that all word lovers read this book. I was unaware of importance of Dr. Minor. As an aside, surely some organization can tidy up his grave. We never know what the tipping point of an event can do to change one's life. In Dr. Minors case it was the murder he committed in one of his paranoid states. This event certainly changed the world of words.
Date published: 2015-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from True piece of history This book was recommended by my favourite Community Librarian. What impressed me most is that these scholars knew my favourite author ~ Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows. The river rat represented two of Grahame's literary buddies. This story shows, once again, that there is truly a fine line between being insane and genious. There is much to be learned by reading a true, historical piece like this one.
Date published: 2012-10-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A must-read for "word nerds" This is an utterly fascinating, completely engrossing, and almost impossible-to-believe true story about how the Oxford English Dictionary was created. If you are a lover of words, then this is a "not-to-be-missed" book! The book follows the lengthy - more than 70 years in total! - period of time, and the massive amount of effort by hundreds of people to create the eventual 12 volumes of the final OED. It truly is unbelieveable what it took to get this behemoth of a reference "book" created. There are two protagonists in the story: 1) Brit James Murray, the original editor of the OED, and the man who dedicated virtually his entire life to its creation and completion, and 2) William Chester Minor, American, doctor, convicted murderer and diagnosed "lunatic", who from the madhouse where he was confined for almost 40 years contributed thousands of definitions to the OED. This is really one of those stories that you can barely believe is non-fiction, because the facts of the tale are just too outlandish and dramatic to be actual events, as opposed to the fictions dreamed up by creative authors. And yet, this IS a true story. It is also by turns, tragic, funny, and inspiring, as the two very different main characters are so dedicated to their goal as to overcome many and large obstacles to meet it. Aside from the fascinating stories of the lives of the two men involved, this book is an unapologetic love-letter to words and the English language, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary. Anyone who considers themself a lover of words and/or language I believe will find this book incredibly interesting and educational. I say educational because the author is clearly very erudite and intellectual based on the extensive, and often obscure vocabulary he uses in it. I consider myself to have a pretty wide vocabulary and be better than average articulate, but I looked up more words as I read this book than I have probably needed to do in the total of the books I've read over the past 10 years! I learned LOTS of words from reading this book, and I imagine the author would be gratified to know that his book about the writing of the OED had readers using dictionaries as a result. Without question one of the best and most interesting non-fiction books I've ever read!
Date published: 2012-06-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating True Story This book tells the fascinating story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary over several decades. It also provides insight into the American Civil War and the mind of a brilliant mentally ill American veteran who has committed murder in London and spends much of his institutionalized life searching out quotations for the OED. It's written in a casual but informative style that makes it a "quick read". I enjoyed it very much.
Date published: 2010-11-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Hit and miss This is the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester gives background as to what preliminary versions of dictionaries were like and how writers before this time didn't have anything to refer to to check the right usage of the word they were using. Then Winchester gets into the compilation of the OED and specifically how Professor Murray from Oxford was the one to spearhead the project, even though it took him about 40 years of his life and continued on after his death. We also learn about Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran who quite literally goes crazy and eventually shoots and kills someone, thinking that he was trying to do something bad to him. This lands Dr. Minor in a mental institution in England. One of the few things he finds pleasure in is reading, so when there is a call out for people to help find quotations of word in books, Dr. Minor is up to the challenge. He becomes one of the most helpful contributors to the OED. I found this book was quite hit and miss for me. There were portions of it that were very interesting and other parts that weren't interesting at all. Murray and Minor's stories kept me interested, but some of the history behind everything bored me. If you're interested in the history of literature, you would enjoy this book!
Date published: 2009-05-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Educational This was a good historical book about a subject i'm very fond of....words. I would have given it 4 stars but felt that the author, Simon Winchester, too often took the liberty of inserting his own assumtions into the historical details. I can't imagine the tediousness and perseverance it must have taken to compile the Oxford English Dictionary sans's amazing it was completed at all!
Date published: 2009-02-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The professor and the madman and the reviewer I didn’t think that a book about the development of a dictionary could be interesting to anyone other than an English scholar but I was wrong. I always thought that dictionaries just, well, happened. But they are compiled and written by real people, some more unfortunate than others. This book is about one such person, Dr. W.C. Minor. The author, Simon Winchester, manages to write compellingly not just about the mechanics of compiling a dictionary but also about the personalities involved. The book is in many ways uplifting but also sad, although I leave it to the reader to posit why. Winchester also wrote about William Smith, the geologist and I can see similar patterns in the two books about how he weaves his stories together. But I find his writing clear and relatively simple and I enjoyed both of his books that I have read so far. I recommend The Professor and the Madman.
Date published: 2008-03-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from language & madness Language, wrote Michel Foucault, is the first and last structure of madness. But who would have suspected the role that madness has played in structuring the English language? The topic of Simon Winchester's _The Professor and the Madman_ is the relationship between Professor James Murray, creator of the _Oxford English Dictionary_, and Dr. William Chester Minor, who was one of the OED's most prolific contributors and who, unbeknownst to Murray for years, was a clinically insane murderer institutionalized at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Winchester gained access to government documents kept secret for over a century to elaborate on this bizarre and ironic bit of history, in which the development of an instrument of clear speech keeps pace with the descent of one of its chief contributors into ever-deeper delirium and despair. Winchester's narrative reads like an unusually loquacious murder-mystery, in which brief yet fitting tangents interrupt the story to edify the reader with the strange historical meanings of otherwise familiar words like pure ( a Victorian term for dog turds ). Language and madness: strange bedfellows, indeed.
Date published: 2002-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Professor and the Madman The fascinating, bestselling story of two very different men from the Victorian age - and the monumental work that was to bring them together. The brilliant Professor James Murray was the first and most important editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. One of his extremely valuable contributors was an American, Dr. William Chestor Minor, who held the dubious distinction of committing the first murder with a firearm on British soil, and conducted his correspondence from Broadmoor Asylum for criminal lunatics. After reading of their triumphs and tragedies, I will never take a dictionary for granted again.
Date published: 1999-06-22

From Our Editors

It took a huge committee to compile the hundreds of thousands of definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. So when the committee discovered more than 10,000 definitions were the work of a single man, they were awestruck. When they decided to honour Dr. W. C. Minor for this contribution, the awe turned to incredulity. Because, as they discovered, the brilliant Dr. Minor was an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane. The Professor and the Madman tells his fascinating story.

Editorial Reviews

"Remarkably readable, this chronicle of lexicography roams from the great dictionary itself to hidden nooks in the human psyche that sometimes house the motives for murder, the sources for sanity, and the blueprint for creativity." (Kirkus Reviews (starred))