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Saturday, January 31, 2009

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

As written by Simon Winchester, here is a factual account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary intermixed with a superb mystery tale. Although it took seventy years to produce, with the assistance of thousands of learned individuals writing the definitions and tracings of over four hundred thousand words, two men were instrumental in producing a greater part of this multi-volume masterpiece. They were Professor James Murphy, editor of the dictionary for over thirty years, and Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon and veteran of the Civil War, who contributed over 10,000 definitions to the work. Both of these men resembled one another in their devotion to their study of the English language. However, the mystery arose in that for twenty years, Dr. Minor refused to meet with Professor Murphy to discuss their work. When the professor finally travelled to meet the doctor, he discovered that Dr. Minor was a criminally insane murderer incarcerated in the criminal lunatic asylum of Broadmoor. It was to Dr. Minor’s advantage that his scholarly involvement in the dictionary’s creation was a balancing force in his life; it was to Professor Murphy's benefit that Dr. Minor's work contributed so much to the dictionary.

This book provides an analysis of several subjects: the design of the English language, the history of dictionaries, and the treatment of mental illness in the nineteenth century. It also offers the reader a closer view of the passions and obsessions of two brilliant men.

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