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Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

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Most Helpful Favorable Review

5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

Second Book on the Writing of the Oxford Dictionary

I love Winchester's slant on this topic - I was not particularly interested in reading either book - my mother kept bugging me to get them, then she finally got them for me. Of couse, she was right, and I was wrong. I was delighted by Winchester's quirky slant on the ...
I love Winchester's slant on this topic - I was not particularly interested in reading either book - my mother kept bugging me to get them, then she finally got them for me. Of couse, she was right, and I was wrong. I was delighted by Winchester's quirky slant on the history of the OED. I had never heard any of the human stories about the compliation. I will now never be able to pick up an OED without thinking of the people who created it.

I am surprised that the Barnes & Noble rating categories do not allow me to rate the book on: research, writing and intellectual stimulation.

.... did you know that the OED continues to take submissions for new words, and new uses of words? I think that this is a perfect example of intellectual stimulation.

posted by cookiepam on May 26, 2010

Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review

Most Helpful Critical Review

10 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

Winchester Missed Some Significant Information

The subject of Winchester¿s book is Sir James A. H. Murray, editor of the 'Oxford English Dictionary,' and Dr. William C. Minor, the American volunteer who worked on the 'O.E.D.' for 20 years while an inmate in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for the criminally insane. I a...
The subject of Winchester¿s book is Sir James A. H. Murray, editor of the 'Oxford English Dictionary,' and Dr. William C. Minor, the American volunteer who worked on the 'O.E.D.' for 20 years while an inmate in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for the criminally insane. I am a New York playwright who, in 1995, completed a full-length drama focusing James Murray and William Minor, called 'The Dictionary,' and whose help Mr. Winchester sought when he was first considering writing his book. 'Winchester mentions me in his Acknowledgments.' There is a serious problem with Winchester¿s book. Mark Rozzo characterizes it perfectly in his 'Washington Post' review of 'The Professor and the Madman': '. . . we¿re never sure when Winchester is cleaving to facts and when he is fictionalizing.' Winchester also missed some significant information in his book. Moreover, there are a number of inaccuracies in 'The Professor and the Madman.' About Minor¿s death Winchester writes, incorrectly, 'There were no obituaries.' An obituary was published in 1921 in 'Yale University Obituary Record of Graduates Deceased During the Year Ending July 1, 1920.' From this obituary one learns that Minor was born in the East Indies that he entered the Yale School of Medicine in 1861 and was graduated in 1863 that he was incarcerated at Broadmoor, transferred to St. Elizabeth¿s in the U.S., and later transferred from St. Elizabeth¿s to The Retreat, in Hartford, where he died on March 26, 1920. The Yale obituary also mentions his brother Alfred. Winchester refers to the lawyer who defended Minor in his murder trial, but does not mention the lawyer¿s name. My research suggests that the person who defended Minor is the same one who defended Oscar Wilde. The man¿s name is Edward Clarke. I am surprised that Winchester did not seize upon this possibility. Winchester theorizes that Minor¿s clinically paranoid dread of the Irish, and of the Fenians in particular, was the result of his experience as a Union Army Surgeon with Irish troops during the Civil War. Winchester neglects the fact that during the years that Minor was stationed in New York 'on Governors Island' the Fenians were, in fact, his real enemy. Minor lived in New York during 1867 and 1868, when the local papers frequently covered events pertaining to the revolutionary movement in Ireland and to activities of the Irish in New York. In March of 1867 the Irish cause held the front page of just about every newspaper every day. It was during the week of March 18 that the expectation of a Fenian attack on Canada, still part of the British Empire at that time, appeared in at least three separate articles in three different papers. News of U.S. troops being moved from New York to the border to thwart the offensive also made headlines. That Minor would have been selected to assist in the battlefield action against the Fenians is not unlikely. This attack never took place however, less than a year before, the Fenians had staged an assault on Canada from New York State. Eight hundred Irishmen crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. They were subsequently defeated by U.S. troops, and about 700 Fenians were arrested. Minor would have known of this. Winchester mentions the American vice-consul-general and quotes a letter of his to the Medical Superintendent of Broadmoor, but neglects to cite his name, which is Joshua Nunn. Winchester also failed to locate a series of twenty-two letters by Joshua Nunn, an important source of information regarding Minor. The letters to Minor¿s family and friends in America contain particulars that conflict with some of Winchester¿s assumptions regarding Minor¿s life at Broadmoor and his relations with his family. Joshua Nunn clearly went beyond the call of duty in his assistance to, and profound concern for, Minor. Nunn was the man who handled all the details of Minor¿s legal situation as well as Minor¿s living conditions at Broadmoor. He was also very involved in the press account

posted by Anonymous on December 28, 2007

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2007

    Winchester Missed Some Significant Information

    The subject of Winchester¿s book is Sir James A. H. Murray, editor of the 'Oxford English Dictionary,' and Dr. William C. Minor, the American volunteer who worked on the 'O.E.D.' for 20 years while an inmate in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for the criminally insane. I am a New York playwright who, in 1995, completed a full-length drama focusing James Murray and William Minor, called 'The Dictionary,' and whose help Mr. Winchester sought when he was first considering writing his book. 'Winchester mentions me in his Acknowledgments.' There is a serious problem with Winchester¿s book. Mark Rozzo characterizes it perfectly in his 'Washington Post' review of 'The Professor and the Madman': '. . . we¿re never sure when Winchester is cleaving to facts and when he is fictionalizing.' Winchester also missed some significant information in his book. Moreover, there are a number of inaccuracies in 'The Professor and the Madman.' About Minor¿s death Winchester writes, incorrectly, 'There were no obituaries.' An obituary was published in 1921 in 'Yale University Obituary Record of Graduates Deceased During the Year Ending July 1, 1920.' From this obituary one learns that Minor was born in the East Indies that he entered the Yale School of Medicine in 1861 and was graduated in 1863 that he was incarcerated at Broadmoor, transferred to St. Elizabeth¿s in the U.S., and later transferred from St. Elizabeth¿s to The Retreat, in Hartford, where he died on March 26, 1920. The Yale obituary also mentions his brother Alfred. Winchester refers to the lawyer who defended Minor in his murder trial, but does not mention the lawyer¿s name. My research suggests that the person who defended Minor is the same one who defended Oscar Wilde. The man¿s name is Edward Clarke. I am surprised that Winchester did not seize upon this possibility. Winchester theorizes that Minor¿s clinically paranoid dread of the Irish, and of the Fenians in particular, was the result of his experience as a Union Army Surgeon with Irish troops during the Civil War. Winchester neglects the fact that during the years that Minor was stationed in New York 'on Governors Island' the Fenians were, in fact, his real enemy. Minor lived in New York during 1867 and 1868, when the local papers frequently covered events pertaining to the revolutionary movement in Ireland and to activities of the Irish in New York. In March of 1867 the Irish cause held the front page of just about every newspaper every day. It was during the week of March 18 that the expectation of a Fenian attack on Canada, still part of the British Empire at that time, appeared in at least three separate articles in three different papers. News of U.S. troops being moved from New York to the border to thwart the offensive also made headlines. That Minor would have been selected to assist in the battlefield action against the Fenians is not unlikely. This attack never took place however, less than a year before, the Fenians had staged an assault on Canada from New York State. Eight hundred Irishmen crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. They were subsequently defeated by U.S. troops, and about 700 Fenians were arrested. Minor would have known of this. Winchester mentions the American vice-consul-general and quotes a letter of his to the Medical Superintendent of Broadmoor, but neglects to cite his name, which is Joshua Nunn. Winchester also failed to locate a series of twenty-two letters by Joshua Nunn, an important source of information regarding Minor. The letters to Minor¿s family and friends in America contain particulars that conflict with some of Winchester¿s assumptions regarding Minor¿s life at Broadmoor and his relations with his family. Joshua Nunn clearly went beyond the call of duty in his assistance to, and profound concern for, Minor. Nunn was the man who handled all the details of Minor¿s legal situation as well as Minor¿s living conditions at Broadmoor. He was also very involved in the press account

    10 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 26, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Second Book on the Writing of the Oxford Dictionary

    I love Winchester's slant on this topic - I was not particularly interested in reading either book - my mother kept bugging me to get them, then she finally got them for me. Of couse, she was right, and I was wrong. I was delighted by Winchester's quirky slant on the history of the OED. I had never heard any of the human stories about the compliation. I will now never be able to pick up an OED without thinking of the people who created it.

    I am surprised that the Barnes & Noble rating categories do not allow me to rate the book on: research, writing and intellectual stimulation.

    .... did you know that the OED continues to take submissions for new words, and new uses of words? I think that this is a perfect example of intellectual stimulation.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 22, 2012

    Fascinating story - Disappointing writer

    The story is truly fascinating but is presented in a very disappointing "schlock journalism" manner. This is particularly true in the creation of a nonsense premise that the OED editor visited the asylum not realizing that the contributor was an inmate.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2007

    The madman is quite mad...

    I never realized how much work was needed to make a dictionary or any reference book at all, until I read The Professor and the Madman. This book has a good explanation on how the Oxford English Dictionary, the most complete dictionary of the English language was started. Now that may not make for a very interesting story, but the events that took place, and the people involved with this historical event are interesting. The story is told somewhat slow, and may not make for a very easy read because of it, but the book picks up and becomes much more interesting when you learn more about Dr. Minor and James Murray. The tales of Dr. Minor make for a very interesting story alone. Dr. Minor lived on the island of Ceylon until he was fourteen, when he was sent to live in New England. He went to Yale and became a surgeon, and served at the Battle of Wilderness in 1864 where his mental problems most likely started. At one point he had to brand Irish deserters during the war which contributed to his dementia later in life. After looking at some information Dr. Minor I found one thing that the author left out. At one point in the book the author wonders how Dr. Minor could have had such knowledge on dictionaries, but he contributed to The Great American Dictionary before moving to England to try to recover from his problems. The theme of the book is the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the tale of schizophrenic Dr. Minor and James Murray. I liked reading about the doctor and his problems it was an interesting topic, though Murray¿s wasn¿t as interesting there are several details that make for a good read. The parts about the history of the Dictionary before Minor was involved weren¿t too interesting, but it was somewhat necessary. One other thing that made this hard to read was the fact that it is a very hard book to read if you don¿t have a very big vocabulary. There are a lot of seldom used words for everyday vocabulary, and many I had never heard before. I would recommend this book to anybody who is interested in reading a history of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the impact it had on the time period or just tales of mental problems.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2002

    Winchester missed some significant information.

    The subject of Winchester¿s book is Sir James A. H. Murray, editor of the 'Oxford English Dictionary,' and Dr. William C. Minor, the American volunteer who worked on the 'O.E.D.' for 20 years while an inmate in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for the criminally insane. I am a New York playwright who, in 1995, completed a full-length drama focusing James Murray and William Minor, called 'The Dictionary,' and whose help Mr. Winchester sought when he was first considering writing his book. (Winchester mentions me in his Acknowledgments.) There is a serious problem with Winchester¿s book. Mark Rozzo characterizes it perfectly in his 'Washington Post' review of 'The Professor and the Madman': '. . . we¿re never sure when Winchester is cleaving to facts and when he is fictionalizing.' Winchester also missed some significant information in his book. Moreover, there are a number of inaccuracies in 'The Professor and the Madman.' About Minor¿s death Winchester writes, incorrectly, 'There were no obituaries.' An obituary was published in 1921 in 'Yale University Obituary Record of Graduates Deceased During the Year Ending July 1, 1920.' From this obituary one learns that Minor was born in the East Indies; that he entered the Yale School of Medicine in 1861 and was graduated in 1863; that he was incarcerated at Broadmoor, transferred to St. Elizabeth¿s in the U.S., and later transferred from St. Elizabeth¿s to The Retreat, in Hartford, where he died on March 26, 1920. The Yale obituary also mentions his brother Alfred. Winchester refers to the lawyer who defended Minor in his murder trial, but does not mention the lawyer¿s name. My research suggests that the person who defended Minor is the same one who defended Oscar Wilde. The man¿s name is Edward Clarke. I am surprised that Winchester did not seize upon this possibility. Winchester theorizes that Minor¿s clinically paranoid dread of the Irish, and of the Fenians in particular, was the result of his experience as a Union Army Surgeon with Irish troops during the Civil War. Winchester neglects the fact that during the years that Minor was stationed in New York (on Governors Island) the Fenians were, in fact, his real enemy. Minor lived in New York during 1867 and 1868, when the local papers frequently covered events pertaining to the revolutionary movement in Ireland and to activities of the Irish in New York. In March of 1867 the Irish cause held the front page of just about every newspaper every day. It was during the week of March 18 that the expectation of a Fenian attack on Canada, still part of the British Empire at that time, appeared in at least three separate articles in three different papers. News of U.S. troops being moved from New York to the border to thwart the offensive also made headlines. That Minor would have been selected to assist in the battlefield action against the Fenians is not unlikely. This attack never took place; however, less than a year before, the Fenians had staged an assault on Canada from New York State. Eight hundred Irishmen crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. They were subsequently defeated by U.S. troops, and about 700 Fenians were arrested. Minor would have known of this. Winchester mentions the American vice-consul-general and quotes a letter of his to the Medical Superintendent of Broadmoor, but neglects to cite his name, which is Joshua Nunn. Winchester also failed to locate a series of twenty-two letters by Joshua Nunn, an important source of information regarding Minor. The letters to Minor¿s family and friends in America contain particulars that conflict with some of Winchester¿s assumptions regarding Minor¿s life at Broadmoor and his relations with his family. Joshua Nunn clearly went beyond the call of duty in his assistance to, and profound concern for, Minor. Nunn was the man who handled all the details of Minor¿s legal situation as well as Minor¿s living conditions at Broadmoor. He was also very involved in the press account

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 7, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Highly Recommend

    Great historical read, a little dry-but once you get over that, the actual content, time line, and drama is captivating.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2012

    So good

    It was neat learning about the making of the dictionary and who was behind it. Loved reading about the madman. Great read.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2012

    Good read!

    It is hard to make a book about the mundane labor of creating a dictionary very interesting. Winchester does do it.
    Fascinating story and the author corrects some popular myths about it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 2, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting

    The Professor and the Madman is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the “dangerous lunatic” that was a major contributor of entries to the dictionary. It was a fascinating narrative—well told with an interesting and educational topic. I think there were parts where Winchester waxed a bit dramatic or put in theories based upon conjecture rather than fact…but that is what journalists do, after all.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2012

    A truly engaging book.

    When I first starting reading, I expected to be bored but was pleasantly surprised. The book and story flows nicely and kept me engaged after the first few pages. I became intrigued with the organization and the process of compiling the dictionary. Imagine describing and defining every word in the English language using volunteer writers and no computers to organized the process. The story and the relationship between the Professor and the Madman hold it all together. A good read. 2/28/2012

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 28, 2011

    Devil In The Dictionary

    An excellent read. If you enjoy Erik Larson's work ("Issac's Storm","Devil In The White City", etc) you will certainly enjoy this. It is history as it should be written; informative, accurate, and entertaining.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 16, 2011

    Well Written and well researched.

    What a great story. Fact is more often than not, stranger than fiction. Very much enjoyed this story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2010

    Great Book!

    This is a great book for light, entertaining reading. It's a juicy story that ended up shaping linguistic history!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2010

    Winchester does it again

    Everything by Simon Winchester is worth reading. His topics are original, each different from the last, and good value for time spent. Once again, I enjoyed the book very much.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 24, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Fascinating origins to a respected tome

    I usually think of dictionaries - if I think of them at all - as "just being there". But where did they come from? How did they get written?

    This book describes the amazing origins of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the men instrumental in its creation. An absolutely fascinating read for anyone interested in words, dictionaries, or just the history of things.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Winchester Forever!

    This author is one of the best non-fiction writers. I rarely read non-fiction because it is frequently densely written and boring. This is never the case with Simon Winchester. This book is amazing for anyone who cares about the English language and the original Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The true and stunning story is of a mental patient/prisoner who contributed monumentally to the OED.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 17, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A Fabulous Book Club Read!

    Overall, the book was very interesting. I would have never picked this out for myself to read. But that's the great thing about book clubs, you push yourself to reach out to discover something new. The Professor and the Madman is a very interesting story that in the beginning, is difficult to follow. Why I say this is because, the beginning is about how the dictionary came about. It's own little history, that I found to be very dull and lifeless. It's not until about a quarter of the way through the book that the 'story' really starts. I was hoping that the author was going to go into a little more detail about the letters written between the two main characters and how people felt, who were working on the dictionary, about a volunteer in an insane asylum that was helping with the dictionary. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen and is discussed briefly. The author does do a good job with description of what the characters looked like and what they might have been feeling going through the 'similar' situations they were in. I really liked the comparisons between the two; which offered great discussion within my book club.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 11, 2013

    Interesting read

    Simon Winchester writes about little nooks and crannies of history that you wouldn't ordinarily think about. This was interesting and entertaining: presented a good picture of the time. Although the little Amazonian fish is supposed to be an urban legend with no known actual cases...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2013

    Would not recommend

    The story was good, or could have been, but the author rambled on with so many dictionary definitions that it made it difficult to follow the story and frankly all of the rambling was boring. I love to read and read a lot but this book was way to much work to get through.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2013

    Good read

    Unexpected interesting history of the writting of the dictionary.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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