The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Paperback)

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Who knew—indeed who could have even guessed—that the creation of the original Oxford English Dictionary had such a wild story woven into its history! I can honestly say that until I read this book, I hadn’t really given any thought to exactly how a dictionary came together, and the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in particular, was particularly onerous: in addition to defining its original 414,825 words, its creators also collected nearly 2 million quotations to help contextualize each word and its sometimes varying definitions.

To aid in this colossal task, they solicited the public for help that could be included what would ultimately become the multi-volume dictionary. One of their most prolific public submitters was a mysterious Dr. W. C. Minor, who contributed more than 10,000 definitions to the cause. As the years wore on and the Dictionary neared completion, OED project coordinator Dr. James Murray became convinced that he needed to meet Dr. Minor, and when he eventually did find him, it was in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where Civil War veteran Dr. Minor was serving time for murder. The story of the friendship they developed and how Dr. Minor used his fervent search for definitions as a balm for his madness makes for an engaging account about a seemingly mundane and anonymous task and the passionate people who undertake it.

— From Alison's Picks


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.

About the Author

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, The Men Who United the States, The Map That Changed the World, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa, all of which were New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. In 2006, Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He resides in western Massachusetts.

Product Details
ISBN: 9780060839789
ISBN-10: 0060839783
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: July 5th, 2005
Pages: 288
Language: English