The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester


Ooooo criminally-insane, murder-mystery, literary non-fiction goodness. You could seriously pour chocolate on this and gobble it up.

I’m feeling lazy (I might be getting sick, yuck), so I’m just gonna go ahead and post the description of the book here from the back of the book:

The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W.C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.


That sums it up so well! Way better than I could have. But yeah, so basically the HUGE project of creating the Oxford English Dictionary involved asking volunteers to send in quotes for words both common and rare, in order to best be able to trace the history and all meanings of each word. I guess I never really thought about what an impressive project that would be, especially back then. Seriously, we live in a world today when we can look everything up on the Internet. Everything. And I knew few people even own paper dictionaries anymore because most of us can just type a word we need a definition for into our phones and get it. I can’t imagine living in a time before dictionaries when you would think “Hmmm I wonder what the word means” and NOT have a way to look it up! I finally understand why Shakespeare’s crazy ass never makes any sense to me – he didn’t have a way to check if a word was a word already invented, if he was using it correctly, or if it was even spelled correctly.

So yeah, back to the book. This one guy, W.C. Minor, had a whole lot of time on his hands since he was locked away for being criminally insane and ended up contributing a TON of quotes to use in the OED. So many so that James Murray realized it and eventually went to meet Minor, and the two kind of became friends.

Well clearly I’m not going to tell you why Minor was locked away – how crazy he was or what crime he committed. That would ruin the fun! But this is a lovely, nerdy book if you care at all about literary history or lexicography. I learned way more about the making of the OED than I never thought I would, and I enjoyed the tale of crazy that surrounds Minor, and the lovely hint of bromance between him and Murray.


Sarah Says: 4 stars




  1. This was the first (but not last) SimonWinchester book I ever read and I really got a kick out of it. I occasionally got bogged down in some of the historical bits, but seriously, how bizarre a story is this?!


    1. It’s so strange! But so cool too. I feel bad for Minor’s crazy self. And I like that the author’s note at the end explains why the book is dedicated to George Marret (I think that was his name? Crap I don’t want to get up to check, lol.)


  2. Dammit woman. Now I have to go request this! On the day that I decided that I would stop myself from requesting books for a while. I guess I’ll start that tomorrow! 😉


  3. I tried to read this last time I was up home and visiting my mum but I just couldn’t get into it. I love the blurb for it and i’m SURE I’d love it, so it’s still on my TBR, but I think I’ll wait until I’ll back home again so I can still mum’s copy.


    1. The beginning, oddly enough, was the most gripping part for me. But I hope that you do get a chance to read it someday, cause it was weird and interesting. If nothing else, it’s good trivial information to use at parties to impress people. If for some reason the topic of lexicography comes up… which sounds like a weird party, but one that I would totally go to… I’m gonna stop talking (typing?) now.


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