Sunday, July 01, 2018

BOOK: Simon Winchester, "The Professor and the Madman"

Simon Winchester: The Professor and the Madman: A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. 1998.

Like I guess many other people, I have long been fascinated by the Oxford English Dictionary. How can you not love a dictionary that boldly aims to include all the words, current as well as long-obsolete ones, in all their meanings, describing how the meaning of each word changed over the centuries, and illustrating this with quotations from numerous books and magazines? Thus I found the subtitle of this book very promising — not only does it have the OED, but it promises to combine it with the pleasantly thrilling topics of murder and insanity.

Well, as it turns out, I enjoyed reading this book, but in the end I thought the combination of topics covered in it is somewhat odd. As is well known, a lot of work on the OED was done by volunteers who would carefully read various books, looking for sentences which they thought neatly illustrated the use of a particular word; they then copied these sentences to slips of paper and mailed them to the editor of the OED. Then, when lexicographers wanted to write the dictionary entry for a particular word, they would take the slips for that word, arrange them based on various meanings of the word, and study them to come up with suitable definitions and choose a few of the sentences as examples to include in the dictionary.

One of the most valuable and productive among these volunteer readers was one Dr. William Minor, an American physician and retired military officer; he is the madman from the title of this book, and the book is partly the story of his life and his involvement with the OED, partly the story of the making of the OED itself and especially of the work of OED's long-serving editor, James Murray (the professor from the title of the book). It tends to jump from one story to the other and back as you move from chapter to chapter, which I felt was somewhat disorienting but on the other hand it did help move the story in a roughly chronological manner.

For me, the OED part of the story was the more interesting one, and the chapters about Dr. Minor were a bit less interesting. He was from a fairly wealthy family, his parents had been missionaries in Asia, he studied medicine at Yale and served in the Union army during the U.S. civil war (ch. 3). The first symptoms of his madness started a few years after the war; at the time, it was described as monomania or paranoia, and in modern terms seems to have been a kind of schizophrenia (ch. 11). Nobody quite knew what caused it; it may have been triggered, or exacerbated, by his experiences during the war (e.g. when at one point he had been required to brand a deserter with a red-hot iron; ch. 3). His madness seemed to mainly show itself at night, when he was convinced that enemies are entering his room, hiding under his bed, torturing and harassing him, etc. (e.g. ch. 6); outside of that, he could behave quite normally most of the time. He was retired from the army and travelled to Europe, hoping to calm his nerves by cultivating his artistic interests. Unfortunately, one night in London, his bout of paranoia led him to kill a passing workman, a stoker named George Merrett (ch. 1). Due to his insanity, Minor was found not guilty, but was committed to the recently established lunatic asylum at Broadmoor, where he then spent most of the rest of his life (a few years before his death, he was allowed to move to a nursing home in the States; ch. 11). But he was still receiving his army pension, and this allowed him to live fairly comfortably at Broadmoor, buying and studying rare books, painting, playing the flute, etc. In time he would even reach out to the widow and children of the man he had murdered, trying to help them (ch. 6).

The dictionary part of the story begins with a nice bit about the history of earlier English dictionaries (ch. 4), from their modest beginnings with the 1604 A Table Alphabeticall all the way to Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary about 150 years later. Early dictionaries tended to focus on rare or difficult words; Johnson included common words, and introduced the practice of thoroughly combing over the books of notable authors to collect examples of how a word is actually being used, but even he was mostly interested in contemporary usage. That's where the OED differed, as it proposed to cover past usage as well (words that are no longer in use or whose meaning has changed). As Winchester points out, the scope of the project was stupendous, but the Victorian age was a time of optimism that didn't shrink from taking on such projects. Even so, the first steps of the project weren't easy (ch. 5); the amount of work and time that would be required to complete it were hilariously underestimated; the first editor, Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet S. T. Coleridge), died after two years in office; he was succeeded by Frederick Furnivall, who appears to have been a very remarkable character but started to lose interest after a while. That's when James Murray stepped in; he was originally from a modest Scottish family and his formal education had to end early, but he taught himself a prodigious amount about languages and philology, and spent much of his career as a teacher in secondary schools (ch. 2), though eventually his work on the OED became a full-time job.

The two stories begin to intersect somewhere in the 1880s (ch. 6). Murray sent out a call for volunteers to start reading books and mailing slips again, and Minor was among those who responded; that's how they first came into contact. Over the years, Minor became one of OED's most valuable volunteers, sending tens of thousands of slips. He devised his own system of work (ch. 7): he would read up his various rare old books in advance, preparing alphabetically arranged indexes of interesting words and the pages where they occurred; then he would enquire of Murray which words the lexicographers were working on at the time, and use his indexes to prepare and send citation slips for those words.

This fruitful relationship went on for several years and Murray actually had no idea that Minor was an inmate at the asylum: “I never gave a thought to who Minor might be. I thought he was either a practicing medical man of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure, or perhaps a retired medical man or surgeon who had no other work.” (Ch. 6.) He did eventually learn about Minor's situation and from that point often went to visit him at Broadmoor (ch. 9).

The book ends on a somewhat sad note. As the years went on, Minor's madness got worse, his intellectual abilities began to fail, and a new doctor at Broadmoor began to treat him with an increasingly cruel and unnecessary harshness (ch. 10); he was moved to America in 1910 and died in 1920 (ch. 11). Furnivall died in 1910, Murray in 1915, before they could see their great dictionary being completed (ch. 11). I was impressed by the author's efforts to follow the strands of the story as far as they could be; he found a distant relative of Dr. Minor, still living in Connecticut, and he also found the grave of poor George Stoker (Minor's murder victim) in London and investigated the subsequent fate of his widow and children.

All in all, this book was definitely a pleasant read, it is engagingly written and the author made a great effort in researching the various bits and pieces of the story, but I found the parts about the unfortunate life and illness of Dr. Minor a bit glum and depressing, and I couldn't help wishing that there had been less about that and more about the making of the OED itself, which is such a triumphant and encouraging story.

Winchester later wrote another book about the OED, The Meaning of Everything, which sounds even more interesting so I hope I'll read it some day as well.

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