Reviews in 200 Words

The Professor and the Madman / The Meaning of Everything, both by Simon Winchester

In Double-(guest)-punch...by Katy Welter, Nonfiction on September 1, 2010 at 12:05 pm

The Oxford English Dictionary weighs 135 lbs. Any book that heavy is bound to have a story. Enter Simon Winchester and his two epic tales of the OED’s making, unmaking, and completion. But really, Professor and Meaning tell the story of men who love words. Winchester, whose style marries Victorian formality with engaging familiarity, loves words. James Murray, the OED’s thirty-six-year shepherd and editor, and Dr. William C. Minor, live words. From his perch in a British insane asylum, Minor, an American and Civil War surgeon, extracts words from countless books delivered to his cell. Minor suffered extreme, violent schizophrenia–he murdered a man, and, later cut off his own penis–but his submissions to the OED were exquisite, thorough, and constant. Until Murray visited Dr. Minor, presuming the doctor worked at the asylum, he had no idea of his greatest contributor’s illness. Subsequently, Murray honored him by disregarding his state. Murray needed intensely focused, luminous men to capture the English language–to pin down and preserve this dynamic, living thing. These books, really two volumes, pay tribute to the long project. The life’s work. The indelible print of words. And Murray was working from bed when he died. The entry for “turn-down.” 

-Katy Welter

  1. I've read this one. It was very intriguing. I loved learning about the work on the OED.

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