Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Professor and the Madman

I finished this book this morning. I was reading it last night before I went to bed, and I kept falling asleep with only 5 pages left to go. This is more a testament to how exhausted I was and not at all an indication of the quality of this book.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) took over 70 years to complete. There were thousands of contributors, one of which was an American named Dr. Minor. The project (for the most part) was helmed by Professor Murray, a student of many languages, linguistics and vocabulary. The dictionary was painstakingly assembled, the editors ensuring that the history of each and every word was included - from the first time it appeared in print.

Prof. Murray had advertisements printed up in the form of bookmarks. He distributed them to every library and book seller he could find. The advertisements asked readers to read any books they could, and while doing so, note all of the words. Any sentence that showed a specific meaning of a word was to be copied in a certain way and sent in to the editors. This was painstaking work done in the late 1800s - no computers, no typewriters, no ballpoint pens.

Dr. Minor sent in countless entries - probably 100,000 of the well over 1 million exemplary sentences. After corresponding with Dr. Minor daily for several years, Prof Murray had built up a background for the doctor in his imagination. He was obviously well off and had a lot of time on his hands as well as access to many rare and expensive books. Imagine Prof Murray's surprise to find out that Dr. Minor was a resident at a notorious asylum for the mentally insane.

Dr. Minor grew up with missionary parents in exotic lands, then returned to America for medical school, after which he was commissioned and served as an Army doctor during the Civil War. He began to suffer delusions while still serving in the Army, and was discharged with a full pension shortly thereafter. He moved to England, and there his delusions grew more frequent - always involving people coming to him at night and forcing him to perform lewd acts. Eventually, his delusions forced him out of his apartment in the middle of the night where he saw a man running down the street on his way to work. Naturally, Dr. Minor thought he was one of the men who had come to try to kidnap him, so he shot the poor man leaving his wife and their seven children destitute. Dr. Minor was sentenced to stay in the asylum "until Her Majesty's will be known."

The book outlines a friendship that grew out of very strange circumstances. But it was a great friendship that lasted many many years. The Professor and the Madman remained friends until they died. They shared books, ideals and dreams. Without their friendship and collaboration, the OED would not exist as it does today.

The book is very well researched and written. The two chapters devoted to the history of dictionaries will probably bore a lot of people, but I found them fascinating. Each chapter starts with an entry from the OED. It was a pleasant read, but not one that kept me on the edge of my seat. However, if you have any interest in language, vocabulary, dictionaries, quirky historical stories or Victorian England, it is is a must-read.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I must say that I agree with the assessment that it was pleasant but not really nail-biting.