# Publisher: HarperCollins; 1st edition (August 26, 1998)
# Language: English
# ISBN-10: 0060175966
# ISBN-13: 978-0060175962
# Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 1 inches
# Available Digital Format (E-book): English version (PDF) & Indonesian version (EXE)
The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the greatest achievements in English literature, but it didn’t happen overnight. In Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester delves into the mysterious history of this great text. Along the way, he highlights several of the major contributors. It’s really their story…
I suppose it must seem rather odd that a madman had anything to do with the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, particularly since he became an indispensable asset to the project. But then, William Chester Minor wasn’t always crazy.
The son of American missionaries, Minor attended Yale University and eventually became a doctor. He volunteered his medical skills as a captain during the Civil War, which might have contributed to his mental demise. His paranoia and obvious mental instability eventually caused him to be discharged from the Army; and he traveled abroad in the hope that he would find a cure. Unfortunately, his imagined cure never materialized… Instead, he murdered a man in a fit of paranoia, thinking that someone was trying to break into his room to murder him.
He was incarcerated and eventually deemed criminally insane, which resulted in his institutionalization. He spent a time in the asylum collecting books and making himself as comfortable as possible. Then, he read the call for volunteers that came out from Professor Murray, and he volunteered to help. The editors could not have imagined Dr. Minor’s position; nor could they have imagined how invaluable his services would become.
The fact is… Dr. Minor was given remarkable freedom, and the ability to accumulate rare books. And, without Dr. Minor’s assistance in the effort, it’s easy to imagine that the task of creating the Oxford English Dictionary might have taken considerably longer.
James Murray is the professor. His tale might not seem quite as interesting. He had a mountainous job ahead of him, much larger than he had first envisioned when he accepted the position, but he was a remarkable man.
Winchester writes, “James Murray was born in February 1837, the eldest son of a tailor and linen draper in Hawick…” Although his formal education ended at 14, he had “voracious appetite” for learning. He became headmaster in his hometown by the age of 20, but then was forced to move to London in 1861 because of the ill health of his wife.
Even in London, working as a bank clerk, Murray continued his pursuit of knowledge and he published The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland in 1873. Winchester says, “It was a work that was to gild and solidify his reputation to the point of wide admiration (and to win him the invitation to contribute an essay on the history of the English language for the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica).”
So, Murray became increasingly established in the literary community. He was accomplished in scores of languages, and he lectured on various literary and philosophical topics… But, it’s highly unlikely that he would have been chosen to head the project that would become the OED if it hadn’t been for his friends. As Winchester writes, “It was Furnivall’s friendship with and sponsorship of James Murray—as well as Murray’s links with Sweet and Ellis—that were to lead, ultimately, to the most satisfactory event of all.”
It was the afternoon of April 26, 1878. The Delegates of the Oxford University Press presented Murray with the project, which would put him on a “collision course” with Dr. Minor. The two men never appear to be terribly similar. Although they were close to the same age, their economic and social positions were remarkably different. Minor at one point gave Murray some money for a trip, knowing that the journey would be a financial hardship.
Minor and Murray didn’t meet until seven years after their relationship had really started–with Minor’s first contributions to the OED. Over the many years they grew to know one another, Winchester explains that their relationship “would combine sublime scholarship, fierce tragedy, Victorian reserve, deep gratitude, mutual respect, and a slowly growing amity that could even, in the loosest sense, be termed friendship.”
It came from all kinds… Professor Murray contributed many years and Dr. Minor contributed thousands of words and quotations. Tens of thousands of men and women contributed in all, and of course, we can’t talk about them all. But, from those 70 years of hard labor and long hours, there came “414,825 precise definitions.” It’s hard to imagine so many words. They’re big and small; some seem important, while others seem irrelevant. They’re all there, providing a better understanding of our language and literature in all its immensity and diversity.
But, in this work, we are caught up in the whole story, the tale from beginning to end, and even before that, when Samuel Johnson first created his dictionary. It’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have any kind of dictionary, any collection of words and language. As Winchester writes, “Four hundred years ago there was no such convenience available on any English bookshelf.”
Besides being a tribute to the professor, the madman, and the OED, this work is a tribute to all English literature, where we can find such a bounty of words to be discovered. And now, we have Simon Winchester to tie all of the pieces together.
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