Friday, January 11, 2019

Winchester's "The Professor and the Madman"

The Professor and the Madman is Simon Winchester’s 1998 account of the world’s most impressive dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Winchester details its origins and development, focusing on its chief editor (Professor James Murray) and one of its chief contributors who was a “madman” (Dr. William Minor). Mel Gibson bought the movie rights immediately, but the film is just now being released with Gibson playing the part of Murray and Sean Penn as Minor.

Let’s start with the statistics about the OED: It had 12 “tombstone-size volumes.” (25) It took 70 years to complete and was finished in 1928 (25, 103). The first portion (“fascicle”) was published in 1884—352 pages, describing every word from A to Ant (147), which later became 15,000 pages (149). The original had 415,000 words, 1.83 million quotes, and 178 miles of type. In constructing it, they only lost one word: “bondmaid.” (220) There were five supplements after the 1st edition—and then a 2nd edition, a half-century later—which extended the work to 20 volumes (25).

The OED’s novel, guiding principle was to collect quotes for every use of every word (25, 86). Winchester describes it as an amazing work, especially in its time; “the unrivaled cornerstone of any good library” (26); “a last bastion of cultured Englishness, a final echo of value from the greatest of all modern empires…the most important reference book ever made.” (27) His advice: “admire it as a work of literature” and “marvel at its lexicographical scholarship.” (27)

OED was in the works for 22 years, before the project got underway in earnest at a meeting on Guy Fawkes Day in 1858 (77-78, 107-108). Winchester describes the brief first phase of a handful of editors, focusing on Frederick Furnivall who was enthusiastic but struggled with organizing the task (108-110). Phase II and the bulk of the work was completed with James Murray as editor (110-112), until his death in 1915.

Winchester helpfully charts the history of dictionaries—why they would desirable, early efforts at (far) paler versions, and how to accomplish the work (80-97). He notes that Shakespeare had access to a modest thesaurus but no dictionary; you couldn’t just “look something up.” (80) The first effort is probably a Latin dictionary from 1225 (83). In 1604, Robert Cawdrey compiled the first English dictionary—a 120-page book of 2,500 “unusual” words. (Not surprisingly, unusual words were the focus of early dictionaries.) This was the catalyst for 150 years of diverse efforts (84), including thorough work by Nathaniel Bailey (88) and culminating in the majestic work of Samuel Johnson (89).

Winchester also details a debate about the worthiness of dictionaries. For example, Jonathan Swift thought they would add unproductive fixity to the language and debated Johnson on this (91-92). But the free market agreed with Johnson (93). And his dictionary was the standard, until it was replaced by the OED.

There are other considerations in making a dictionary. For example, no words in a definition can be more complicated or less known than the word being defined (151). (This reminds me of my old friend Dave Borden and a lousy dictionary he had: he looked up ostentatious and the definition was pretentious; he looked up pretentious and the definition was ostentatious! He promptly ripped it in half.) And Winchester is good at describing the difficulties one would not expect—for example, the intricacies of a word like “art”—which turns out to be difficult to define, in all of its many uses (153).

As Furnivall had done, Murray issued an appeal for help, providing detailed instructions. The response was amazing, but the project was far larger than Murray imagined. At this point, Winchester re-introduces us to William Minor—whose history is developed earlier in the book. Minor responded to the appeal and became one of the two most important contributors.

Minor was housed in a relatively comfortable wing of the prison. He still had his military pension which gave him some resources, mostly spent on books (120). He occupied two cells—one of which contained his library, writing desk, and chairs (120, 122). (He later donated all of his books to Murray’s library, where they are still housed today [215].) He also had art supplies, played the flute, had a collection of hard liquors, and paid a servant to do tasks for him (122). A bit more than a cot and three squares!

Minor was extremely smart, organized, and dedicated to the task at hand. But he was also insane—with occasional, dangerous, and bizarre delusions (123-125). He had been a doctor and Civil War veteran who went from quirky to crazy and murdered a man in England, resulting in his imprisonment. He was diagnosed at the time with a form of dementia; Winchester describes him with modern terms: schizophrenia and PTSD (211, 213). He also notes the deadly irony that advances in health and hygiene did not match advances in military equipment for that war (52)—what might be considered part of its judgment against our country for slavery.

Minor developed a relationship with and sent money to the murder victim’s wife—who brought him books and visited him in prison (126-127)! This surprising relationship brought a sense of normalcy to his life. Along the same lines, he saw the invitation to join Murray’s project as “a long-sought badge of renewed membership in the society from which he had been so long estranged.” (133) This led to 20 years of work—from 1885 to 1905, where he contributed mightily to the OED (138, 146). Aside from its sheer volume, his labor of love was relatively valuable because he organized his effort in a unique way, cataloging interesting words and quotes in the books he was skimming, rather than looking for a particular word or letter (139-143).

The best part of the story: since Minor’s address was so basic (Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berks), nobody knew for years that he was in an insane asylum. Winchester details the eventual meeting between Minor and Murray in chapter 9, laying out the legend (168-174) and the more-likely details (174-177) of the discovery about his housing arrangements. The catalyst was a party in late 1890 to celebrate the OED project and those who were crafting it. Minor did not show, only offering a vague explanation about “physical circumstances.” (163, 168, 171-177) (Another insane person who contributed about as much as Minor also did not attend; Winchester gives Fitzedward Hall a brief mention here [166-167].) Murray follows up, visits the address, and learns the truth about Minor’s insanity and imprisonment. They enjoyed years of visits afterwards.

Life get increasingly strange and depressing for Minor at the end. Winchester details Minor’s autopeotomy—in a chapter titled “the unkindest cut.” (190-194) Ouch! He connects the surgery to a new religious fervor and self-condemnation over masturbation and lust. In March 1910, a new warden orders all of his privileges to be removed (198). In April 1910, with declining health, his brother was able to persuade Winston Churchill to allow him to return to America (198-200). The end is a story of failing physical health and mental health that continued to decline.

Perhaps an even unkinder cut is one of omission: Minor died in 1920 and is buried in a rough part of New Haven, CT (the home of Yale University): “he died forgotten in obscurity and is buried beside a slum.” (219) Hopefully, Winchester’s book (and Gibson’s movie) will bring recognition to this strange and productive man’s life.


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