Tuesday, June 19

Murder, insanity add twists to tale of lexicographer, origin of dictionary


Wednesday, January 13, 1999

Murder, insanity add twists to tale of lexicographer, origin of

BOOKS: Author Simon Winchester sheds light on the creation of

By Stacy Sare

Daily Bruin Contributor

The 20th century is convenient. It is easy to look up the
meaning and the origin of words just by opening a dictionary,
popping a CD-ROM in a computer, or flipping the lid on a
pocket-sized electronic dictionary.

However, learning the lexicographical origin of a word was not
always this simple. As a historical footnote to the creation of the
dictionary, we have Simon Winchester’s new piece of non-fiction,
"The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the
Making of the Oxford English Dictionary," a tale of lexicography,
murder and insanity.

The Harper Collins book tells the true story of two brilliant
minds collaborating to compose the Oxford English Dictionary (OED),
a 20-volume masterpiece that took 70 years of dedication to

But, believe it or not, there was a mystery. Professor James
Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary project,
desperately wanted to meet the scholar William Chester Minor, who
had been sending him word research. After many attempts to invite
Minor to the Scriptorium, where Murray and many others worked on
the tedious and exciting OED project, Murray decided to visit Minor
at his address at Broadmoor in Crowthorne, Berkshire England.

When Murray arrived at Minor’s residence, he was perplexed after
learning that Minor’s residence was Broadmoor Asylum for the
criminally insane.

From the Scriptorium to the sanitarium, so unravels Winchester’s
story of a scholarly but genteel madman, plagued by paranoid
delusions and obsessive sexual thoughts. The same man who
contributed to one of the greatest literary achievements had also
cut off his penis with a penknife.

In this, the beauty of this 237-page retelling of dictionary
history is that it covers so many bases. Winchester chooses a
familiar story: the romantic notion of the solitary writer who
suffers from deep insanity. But this time, it’s about the least
romantic of the literary crowd: the uncredited, obscure dictator of
words. By pouring in extensive research, impressive medical
terminology and literary history, Winchester takes a potentially
dry subject and turns it into a multi-dimensional exploration of
the human nature and the human psyche.

At the same time, the text pokes fun at Victorian social ideals
in the world of academia and illustrates the tragedies caused by
war. Winchester alludes to Minor’s participation in the brush fires
of the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia as the roots of
his insanity.

Winchester uses painfully graphic description to describe
Minor’s war responsibility to punish deserters: "The letter D would
be seared on his buttock, his hip or his cheek. It would be a
letter one and a half inches high … the regulations became quite
specific on this point and it would either be burned on with a hot
iron or cut with a razor and the wound filled with black powder,
both to cause irritation and indelibility."

Perhaps the war explains the madness that propelled Minor to aim
and pull the trigger at George Merret, an innocent victim on his
way to work in Lambeth, England. This final act of insanity is
responsible for Minor’s imprisonment at Broadmoor.

Although a madman and a murderer, Winchester’s protagonist
evokes sympathy from both his characters and his readers. They
sympathize with the mad but diligent scholar, permitting him to
have two cell blocks at the Broadmoor Asylum: One to sleep in and
the other to use as a library.

Winchester convinces both the readers and the characters to like
this polite and genteel madman who spends his day reading old
books, teaching the flute to other inmates and painting with

Winchester is as precise as his protagonist. He tells a story
backed up by extensive research, literary allusions and explicit
medical terminology. He brilliantly uses the lexicographical
technique of starting each chapter with a dictionary entry,
introducing a word that foreshadows the depiction of the story.

"The Professor and the Madman" uses literary terminology to
describe the characters in the text, adding flavor to the story
while teaching the reader lessons of lexicography, literary
history, Victorian England and the human consciousness. The book
itself is authentic, with its black and white drawings and book

The overall authenticity of "The Professor and the Madman" lends
an Old World air to this 20th century tool, a source used by many
students, professors and professionals. For those dictionary
readers, never again will the dictionary seem like nothing more
than "words, words, words." A picture can tell a thousand words,
but in the case of "The Professor and the Madman," a dictionary can
paint a intriguing picture.

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