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Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman
A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
by Simon Winchester

Growing up with a dutiful reverence for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the Wren & Martin Grammar book thanks to some dedicated teachers, I had never really wondered what it takes to make a dictionary. How does one know a word is really a word, when was it first used, in what context and how do you explain its meaning without being convoluted and ambiguous? For instance, how does OED define the word 'art'?

When James Murray took over the making of the OED, he called upon volunteers from all over the country to contribute as much as they can within the guidelines he meticulously developed for them. Among the many thousands of volunteers, a handful seem to have gone the extra mile, taking upon themselves the excruciating task of reading volumes after volumes of text in order to make up a precise definition of not just the more exotic words, but even the most common, mundane ones.

One such prolific contributor was Dr.W.C.Minor.

From his East Indies stint with his missionary parents, to his career as an American Civil War army surgeon, Dr.Minor's life was anything but 'normal'. Somewhere along the way, he acquired a mental condition that completely wrecked his career and any semblance of normalcy in his life. Retiring in England for a change from the increasing paranoia plaguing his life, Dr.Minor ended up inadvertently killing an innocent man. Convicted and sent to Broadmoor lunatic asylum in Crowthorne, he spent the rest of his life there, never getting better, never probably even diagnosed correctly or medicated as needed.

It was during his stay at Broadmoor that Dr.Minor chanced upon James Murray's call for contributions to the grand OED project. Being a man of means and superb literary taste, Dr.Minor already possessed a huge collection of rare books, which gave him the impetus to correspond with James Murray offering his services.

James Murray on the other hand grew up rather poor, was self-taught, a rather bright and enterprising man who just happened to be at the right place at the right time in history to make a major contribution to the English lexicon.

The book is a blend of history and facts, with quite some interesting speculation by the author, about the story of James Murray and Dr.W.C.Minor, with the OED being the common bond between the two men.

I liked the fact that the author did not sensationalize many of the horrific events, but instead chose to present it in a matter-of-fact way - especially the autopeotomy which left me trembling with disbelief.

However, there are parts of the book that was more speculation than historical facts, which in small doses was fine as it is the author's prerogative. But, it was hard to nail down the flow as at times it seemed like a murder mystery, at times a fairy blase biography, sometimes peppered with elaborate speculation.

Rather than setting out to tell a chronological series of events, the book juxtaposes information in a slightly jumbled way fitting the current part of the narration without being disorderly and confusing, yet being a bit tedious as it bounces back and forth between the lives of the two main characters.

The book certainly affected me more than I expected: the plight of Dr.Minor (and others like him) certainly made me appreciate the delicate balance of brain chemistry which can easily go wrong leading to terrible consequences. I've often reached for Oliver Sacks books and shied away from it precisely because I don't think I have the strength to learn about all that can go wrong with our amazing brain...

And as a bonus, I learnt a few obsolete words, and many interesting facts about the English language.

A wonderful read, rather heavy, yet quite rewarding in its own way.

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