Sunday, August 29, 2010

Micro-history Monday: The Professor and the Madman

With The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester presents a strange, personal and oddly upbeat history of the relationship between two men that ought never to have met. The first is Professor James Murray, the Scottish-born lexicographer behind what is now known as the Oxford English Dictionary. The second is Dr. W.C. Minor, a brilliant but insane American surgeon who murdered a London man in cold blood in the years after the American Civil War. Minor was consigned to the Broadmoor asylum after he was found not guilty of the crime because of insanity, and ultimately became one of the most significant contributors to the OED’s volunteer efforts. It was only after the first edition of the OED was published, when Murray traveled to Minor’s address to thank him personally for his tireless work, that Murray found out the doctor’s true identity and situation.

The story was bizarre enough to be fodder for the tabloid press on both sides of the Atlantic more than once during the early part of the 20th century, so it’s not surprising that Winchester resurrected the story again at the end of that century for further investigation. But I would argue that the tale of the two men merely provides a “hook” for the book that Winchester actually wanted to write (but which publishers no doubt told him wouldn’t sell), a history of English dictionaries, including his obviously beloved OED. And this is one of my main problems with the book. Winchester’s voice is so effusive in its praise of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, and then the OED, he waxes so poetic on their developments and uses, that he loses the battle for objectivity. My expectation of historians is when they re-approach a subject they will take many perspectives into account. But Winchester sweeps aside any criticisms of the OED – and there are many – in favor of devoted fandom:

There is some occasional carping that the work reflects an elitist, male, British, Victorian tone. Yet even in the admission that, like so many achievements of the era, it did reflect a set of attitudes not wholly harmonic with those prevalent at the end of the twentieth century, none seem to suggest that any other dictionary has ever come close, or will ever come close, to the achievement that it offers.(p. 221)

Winchester constructs the English language as the last vestige of the British Empire. But if it is, it’s worth remembering that it no longer belongs to the Victorian era. For me, the quaint spellings and definitions that make up the OED are an interesting historical artifact, but they give little sense of the dynamism of English in the internet age – for that, you’re better off with Urban Dictionary. So while I understand the importance of the original achievement, I am not as convinced as Winchester that the lexicographical achievement will stand alone in history -- I have more faith in English-speaking humanity than that. And humanity in general.

My second major problem with the book was the “pop psychology” angle on which some of the book's chapters depended. There is endless speculation about the causes of Dr. Minor’s madness (schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and separation anxiety are all proffered as possible explanations), as well as a prurient suggestion that some of the doctor’s later problems might have been caused by an unnatural attraction to the wife of the man Minor murdered – even though there is absolutely no shred of evidence that such an attraction existed. “Why go there?” I kept wondering.

This is a good book, however. The writing style was too flowery for my taste, but the story is told in a compelling way, moving between the two main characters - three if you count the OED - at a lively pace. Winchester did do primary research, and uncovered some letters that expand and enhance the story over previous tabloid versions. The word sleuths out there will definitely find it a treat. Recommended to those who can't start the week without finishing the NYT crossword puzzle, word historians, and anyone else who truly loves language.

That finishes the "What's in a Name 3" challenge - finally. I'm looking forward to next year's categories!


  1. I read this years ago and found parts of it fascinating and then I skimmed other bits. Just a couple days ago on NPR I heard about new words that were added to the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: chillax was one of them!

  2. Thinking about chillax in the OED made my day, Helen. Thanks for stopping by.


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