In recounting how the OED was started, assembled, and published, Simon Winchester has managed to take a potentially dry and complex topic and make it an exciting tale. Although the title is somewhat sensational, it lives up to its hype. Winchester weaves the personal histories of Professor James Murray, the OED’s editor for almost forty years and Dr. W. C. Minor, one of the most significant contributor to the Dictionary –who was also an American, a soldier, a murderer, and quite insane– with the construction, word by word, of the most important reference book of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Winchester uses facts and intertwines them with the color of the time: descriptions of 19th century London, a gripping account of the Battle of the Wilderness during the American Civil War mix with vivid portrayals of the characters in this saga. For instance, here is a stunning quote from a job application Murray had sent to the British Museum (he was 30 years old at the time):
I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and special, has been my favourite pursuit during the whole of my life, and that I possess a general acquaintance with the languages & literature of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes–not indeed to say that I am familiar with all or nearly all of these, but that I possess that general lexical and structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge only a matter of a little application. With several I have a more intimate acquaintance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a less degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provencal and various dialects. In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, Genrman, French & occasionally other languages), Flemish, German Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works for publication upon these languages. I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of the Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian Cuneiform, & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew and Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic Arabic, Coptic and Phoenician to the point where it was left by Genesius.
It is no wonder, then, that Murray was hired as the editor of the OED.
But the main protagonist of the story is the dictionary itself. Having decided to collect all the words in the English language and to define them, we follow hordes of workers and volunteers build the great book. What is amazing about the OED, and had never been done before, is the search, and collection, from works starting in the 15th and 16th centuries and onwards, of quotes defining or explaining the various uses or shades of meaning of each word. Dr. Minor, our insane erudite, was the greatest contributor of quotes, having a prodiguous library in his cell at Broadmoor (England). Each contributor would send their quotes on a piece of paper to Murray and his team. Over the years, literally tons of paper were delivered, sorted, selected, copied, and printed.
Overall, the OED took 70 years to grow to its final form. An unthinkable task today, and a feat of literary fortitude, then.
In his own way, The Professor and the Madman is also a feat in itself.