The Professor and the Madman

A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Winchester, Simon

Paperback - 2005
Average Rating: 4 stars out of 5.
The Professor and the Madman
Baker & Taylor
Looks at the making of the Oxford English dictionary.


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 began in 1857, it 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.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

Publisher: New York : Harper Perennial, 2005
ISBN: 0060839783
Branch Call Number: B Murray W
PE1617.O94 W56 2005
Characteristics: xiii, 242, 16 p. : ill. ; 21 cm.


From the critics

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Oct 03, 2013
  • sess430 rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

On the strength of Winchester's book about the deadly, violent explosion of the Krakatoa volcano, I decided to read this book & I wasn't disappointed. It is about the monumental task (which took 70 years!) of writing the Oxford English Dictionary ~ the OED. If you're a lover of books (& hence words), then read this book to find out how it came to be. Who knew that an American, Dr. Minor, was one of the main contributors (submitted over 10,000 entries)? It reads like a biography of "the Madman". After finishing the book, I went to the library's main branch to examine the OED. I pulled volume X (of 20 huge volumes) & read the entries for the word "old". I was blown away when I counted the pages for it & the related entries - over 10!

Dec 24, 2012
  • InvernessS rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

I was totally fasinated. Don't read other reviews before as it might ruin the true story.

Dec 06, 2012
  • hiking1957 rated this: 3.5 stars out of 5.

What an interesting book. I had no idea and I found the story very well written. It think that the author provided just the right amount of everything.

May 04, 2012
  • haploU5 rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

Tells the tale of the making of the Oxford English dictionary and the monumental effort it demanded. Interesting the way they went about it, but the part of the story I was most intrigued by was Minor’s life and the suggested events that drove him to his madness. I couldn’t help but notice the similarities of his symptoms to those of today’s alien abductees. Even more intriguing was the connection of his duties as a doctor in the Civil War to the cause of his insanity. This story prompted me to take a look at some of suggested readings mentioned at the end of the book. I am looking forward to finding out more on the subject of the OED and the making of other dictionaries and related works.
Enjoyable , different, liked it!

Nov 15, 2011
  • Nutty rated this: 3 stars out of 5.

This book was very interesting and I learned a great deal about the OEC. However, in the middle it was quite slow and became somewhat repetative.

Oct 07, 2011

This book is a close kin to the Winchester’s “The Meaning of Everything”. Both books deal with the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. In “The Meaning…” allusion is made to a particularly productive “volunteer” who was most prodigious in his contributions to the work of the dictionary’s authors. At a very early date, James Murray, the father of the OEC, wondered about this contributor who was making such a massive contribution, frequently send virtual parcels of written work to the Scriptorium where the work of the compilation was being done.
Without saying more about the identity of this mystery contributor, this book, like the others of his works that I have read, is extremely engaging. His subject, which isn’t necessarily riveting per se, is worked with in such a way that the book becomes interesting and even engrossing.
As always, Winchester causes us to give our own dictionary a work-out the likes of which it usually doesn’t get. But then what does it profit a reader if he or she has a dictionary and never has cause to use it?

Oct 05, 2011
  • gvlee rated this: 1 stars out of 5.

This is not a fair rating, because I didn't finish the book. I love the OED, so I expected I would like this book, but the writing was so dry and so lacking in plot that it gave more pain than pleasure to dog my way through it. I gave up after the first chapter.

Dec 07, 2010
  • readilee rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

7 subject headings...something for everyone -those interested in:

- American Civil War
- origin of words - the making of the OED,
- psychopatholgy
- the unlikely genius of madmen

Jul 27, 2010
  • kat62 rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

A glimpse into the lives of two key individuals - an insane American and of the chief editors of the OED - who made valuable, lifelong contributions to the dictionary.
Winchester provides great insight into the little know history of this monumental work. Who knew the OED could be so entertaining?!

Feb 03, 2010
  • neko rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

a proposed additional title for Winchester fans for June 2010

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