The Professor and the Madman

by Simon Winchester

Rating: ★★★

An interesting little biography of Charles Minor, an American madman who made significant contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary whilst ensconsed in Broadmoor insane asylum. Winchester does make use of a false dramatisation of the meeting between James Murray, the editor of the dictionary, and Minor, in order to hook the reader, but he redresses this by later explaining how this account was fabricated and replacing it with the more factual version.

The book flows easily, and I read the whole thing in a day without feeling terribly pressured by it. As well as Minor's biography, Winchester provides a parallel backstory for Murray, and provides some highlights for the history of the OED and English dictionaries in general. There are some occasional interesting definitions and etmyologies littered in the pages for the more lexicographically inclined reader to appreciate.

In fact, my main complaint with the book is that it is a bit too light and digestible -- Winchester omits or only hints at large swathes of presumably fascinating history about the OED. Why, for example, was the entirety of the letter F shipped to Florence? What are these other etymologies that Minor found for unfamiliar agricultural terms? Winchester manages to awaken rather than sate my curiosity about this dictionary and its history -- the sorry tale of Minor himself being in my view decidedly secondary.