Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Book Review: The Professor and the Madman

Bondmaid. Any idea why this word, which means a woman bondservant (according to, might be important? Out of the over 500,000 words in the English language, why should such an innocuous word have any significance? In the big picture of life, it doesn't but in the story of the English language it holds the distinction of being the only word, out of 414,825 words, that was lost while compiling the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. In the day before computers made creating and organizing data a simple, paperless task, bondmaid was the only word the intrepid men who created the OED lost.

Their effort, which lasted from Guy Fawkes Day, 1857 until New Year's Eve, 1927, or just over 70 years, yielded a collection of twelve volumes which defined 414,825 words with 1,827,306 illustrative quotes. Think about that for a moment. From proposal to completion the project took 70 years. In this disposal pop consumer world which we live today can you conceive of a project taking 70 years? 414,825 words. Most speakers of English have a vocabulary of between 10,000 and 20,000 words. This means the average reader would know somewhere between 2.4% and 4.8% of the words in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (the most current edition includes 616,500 words). 1,827,306 quotes illustrating the first usage of the word, the way the word changed over time, and the different meanings and nuances of meaning the word possesses. Any of these numbers are incredible to me and yet the Oxford English Dictionary is truly greater than the sum of its parts. It stands as a monument and road map to the English language. It is THE monument to the lexicographer's art. Like any monument, the story of the creation of the OED is the story of uncommon men, and in THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN Simon Winchester has chosen to illuminate three figures central to the creation of the OED.

The first is Dr. William Chester Minor, Captain, U.S. Army (Retired). Son of Connecticut Yankee's who traveled around the world to serve as missionaries in Ceylon. Minor eventually returned to the United States, earned a medical degree from Yale, served in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and committed murder on the streets of Victorian London.

The second is Professor James Murray, a primarily self-educated Scotsman who taught school and eventually rose to be a fellow of Balliol College and the chief lexicographer of the OED.

The third man, and most tragic character, is George Merrett. He was the son of a Wiltshire farmer who had come to London with his young bride to make his way in the world. He lived in Lambeth, the father of seven children, and shoveled coal at the Red Lion Brewery. How could such a mean fellow contribute to the OED? Sadly, by becoming the victim of another man's madness. George Merrett was shot and killed as he walked to work in the wee hours of the morning on February 17, 1872. The man wielding the gun? Dr. Minor.

After the murder, to which Dr. Minor confessed, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Confined to the Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Broadmore, "until Her Majesty's pleasure be known," which would not be until 1910, Minor was in a unique position to make his prodigious contributions to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

This is the beginning of Winchester's tale, which is part biography of the participants and part biography of the OED itself. Compulsively readable, the story does not allow you to abandon the book for long. Alongside the compelling story that Winchester is telling us, he also manages to cram an amazing amount of information in to the book, illuminating not only the troubled infancy of the OED, but the slow evolution of the very concept of dictionaries. He breathes a remarkable heartbeat into such a dry and obscure subject. I unreservedly recommend this book to anyone with even the slightest interest in the English language. With compelling characters and flowing prose, Winchester struck all the right notes in the book.

Oh yes, and bondmaid eventually had her day, being included in the first supplement to the OED which was published in 1933.

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