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

Paperback | July 5, 2005

bySimon Winchester

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The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857, it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

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From the Publisher

The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857, it was one of the most ambitious project...

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...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:288 pages, 8 × 5.31 × 0.65 inPublished:July 5, 2005Publisher:HarperCollinsLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0060839783

ISBN - 13:9780060839789

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


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

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Editorial Reviews

"a fascinating, spicy, learned tale" (Richard Bernstein, New York Times)