Simon Winchester: The Professor and the Madman

February 2, 2021

What book comes to mind when you read the lines, “One of the greatest romances of English literature?” or “One of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters”? This masterpiece of twelve volumes on its initial edition took almost eighty years to create — the Oxford English Dictionary.

When the British Empire was approaching its pinnacle and English was on the verge of becoming a global language, there was an urgency to “chart the life of each word, to offer its biography… to have a record of the register of its birth,” when it was first written down. “And at the heart of such a dictionary, should be the history of the life span of each and every word. Some words are ancient and exist still. Others are new and vanish like mayflies.  Still others emerge in one lifetime, continue to exist through the next and the next, and look set to endure forever… There should be sentences that show the twists and turns of meanings — the way almost every word slips in its silvery, fishlike way, weaving this way and that, adding subtleties of nuance itself, and then perhaps shedding them as the public mood dictates…”

This book unravels the remarkable men behind such a momentous and historic undertaking: “Their scholarship sheer genius, their contributions to literary history profound. But who remembers them and who today makes use of all that they achieved?”

And yet the most astonishing question of all; what if we were told (the way this book exquisitely does) that the making of the Oxford English Dictionary is a tale of murder and insanity?

This story, at times tragic, at times disturbing but with slivers of hope and redemption, most of the time incredible, has the sort of narrative that I usually find in fiction; and it is written in such an absorbing manner that I had to check many times if it was really a work of non-fiction!

At the core of the story are the two learned men to whom we owe the success of the OED: Professor James Murray, the distinguished editor, and a surgeon whose contributions were vital, Dr. William Chester Minor.  The two men maintained a correspondence for years but had never met, the latter constantly refusing invitations for a meeting in person.  It was only after two decades when Prof. Murray discovered that Dr. Minor was the longest-staying resident at the Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylums for criminal lunatics.

I think this is essential reading for those who love history and words, and the history of words!

“I am not so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are daughters of earth…”

P.S. Just as I thought I veered away from the East and Iran, there is apparently a movie based on this book starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, and the movie is directed by Farhad Safinia, an Iranian.

6 thoughts on “Simon Winchester: The Professor and the Madman”

  1. Australian author Pip Williams wrote a work of fiction based on the making of the Oxford dictionary. Its called The Dictionary of Lost Words and I absolutely loved it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Btw another funny story for you…. I have not purchased a book this year. Everything I have read thus far has been lent to me by a dear old lady friend who I catch up with once a month for coffee and book/travel chats, or old books on my shelf. The reason? Last year I bought a lot of books, and one day My husband jokingly said I was an addict, and whats the point of buying books if you never read them again. (The horror right?). I told him I do re-read books on the shelf, but he didnt believe me, we had a friendly “disagreement” and in my selfish stubborn ways I said “next year I will not buy a single book! I will re-read whats on the shelf or borrow from friends.” He doesn’t believe i can do it, he still doubts me, but 8 months on and I havent bought one yet! But god its been hard…so hard! But i am also a strong stubborn bitch who will not give in! Hahaha. So yes, my list of books to buy on your recommendation is so long, and on January 1st I am going to go crazy and spend so much! Hahahha. I stupidly went into a bookshop the other week actually…. Saw Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red that you recommended…. Oh gosh I had it in my hand, I was going to go walk to the till, but I quickly put it back on the shelf and ran out. They must have thought i was a weirdo! Lol. I will not let my husband win! Silly man! Lol. 🤣🤣🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this entertaining story that made me laugh, and which led me to the idea of including this line in my future husband’s marriage vows: “I promise to say nothing about the amount of books you buy or read.” 🤣🤣🤣 But wow!!! What self-control on your part!!! On the other hand, I am now looking forward to January 1, 2023 as much as you are. Hahahaha!!!

      Liked by 1 person

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