The Professor And The Madman

Mysterious (mistîe · ries), a. [f. L. mystérium Mysteryi + ous. Cf. F.

mystérieux.] 1. Full of or fraught with mystery; wrapt in mystery;

hidden from human knowledge or understanding; impossible or

difficult to explain, solve, or discover; of obscure origin, nature, or

purpose.

 

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the

history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English

Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew

from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the

sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden

within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious

story — a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year

relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

 

Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former

schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the

OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from

New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one

of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations

of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary

contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat,

handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of

Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions

Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but

Murray’s offer was regularly — and mysteriously — refused.

 

Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship

only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent

nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never

traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It

was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that,

in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a

murderer, clinically insane — and locked up in Broadmoor,

England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

 

THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN is an extraordinary tale of

madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at

the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history. With

riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating

glimpse into one man’s tortured mind and his contribution to

another man’s magnificent dictionary.


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