8 Things About The Professor and The Madman

That moment when you realize you are up way past your bedtime fully engaged in a book.... about the making of a dictionary.

A true tale about the production of the Oxford English Dictionary that revolves around two very different but fascinating men. From Civil War battlefields to an Oxford writing shed, the surprisingly fascinating tale about an often overlooked achievement in human history.

1. Murder! Mayhem! Lexiconography!

The book opens with this dramatic scene. Dr. Murry having never met his dictionary's most prolific contributor is taken to a red brick estate outside of London. In a moment out of a British adventure novel, he walks into the main office, introduces himself, and says, "And you must be Dr. Minor. It is a pleasure."

And the man turns around. Cue dramatic music.

"No," the man says,  "I am the Governor of the Broadmore Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Mr. Minor is our longest resident"

[Minor Chord!]

2. Okay Calm Down:

The truth, as we come to find out, is much less dramatic. In fact, about two-thirds of the way through the book we find that even this scene was a breathlessly sensational account as written by the newspapers at the time.
In fact, the subtext, 'A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary' is a bit over the top. A great deal more of the book deals with the strange art of crafting a dictionary than either murder or insanity.

3. But Would You Have Read A Book That Was Titled 'Perfectly Reasonable Account Of The Production Of A Dictionary?':

Uh... no probably no.

4. Well, There You Go!

Fair enough.

5. Come For The Mayhem, Stay For The Dictionary:

Although the past of one of the characters, Dr. W. C. Minor, is steeped in murder and insanity. In that, he murdered someone and was sent to an insane asylum. He is a fascinating and sympathetic character that one can't help but admire and feel sympathy for.

But what actually got me into the book was the description of the history of dictionaries, how one goes about creating one, and how monumental a task the OED is. Which, yeah, it turns out cataloging every word ever used in the English language is, to put it mildly, a bit of a bitch.

6. A Victorian Bromance:

One of the things I found most charming was the relationship between the editor of the OED, Professor James Murray. The author describes the relationship between two men that is both deep and excessively British. You can almost hear the throat clearing and the muttered, 'yes, well, quite, quite," between two men who clearly developed quite a lot of respect and —dare I say it— affection for each other.

7. Best Paired With Glass of Sherry And Your Dictionary:

The voice that this book is written in is absolutely spot on. The story is told with language that borders on academic arrogance without crossing over. It is the language that one imagines that these characters lived in, complete with a load of obscure, needlessly complicated words.

I had to look a bunch up but, instead of pulling out my phone, I decided to dust off my own dictionary. It's not the OED but, respectable. In the process I found myself getting somewhat fascinated with this object that I've always had and, with access to the Internet, rarely use.

I like books that tell the full story about things we take for granted in this world. Especially things like this that turned out to be a strange monument of human achievement.

8. The Verdict ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐:

Highly recommended for people like me who love strange tales of history.  Or people who like insight into strange times and places. I feel like some might get lost when the author dives into the particulars of the production of a dictionary but, then again, probably not. It's a nice, short, pithy book that, while not diving too deep into what it takes to produce a work like this, gives just enough details to make one look at the dictionary gathering dust on their shelves with a lot more respect.


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