Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester


Source of book: Borrowed from the library

“If you like ______, then you might like _____.” I kept having this pop up regarding a few of my favorite non-fiction authors (particularly Sam Kean.) The name recommended was Simon Winchester. So, I figured I would find one of the books that was at our local library, and give him a shot. The recommendation was spot on.



The Professor and the Madman is about those two figures, but the real subject of the book is the Oxford English Dictionary.

I have a couple of unabridged dictionaries, both by Webster. My wife brought a 1961 edition to our marriage. I had a 1996 Encyclopedic Dictionary - my mom bought one for each of us kids. But I do not have an actual OED, sadly.

Dictionaries are not all alike. They are written with specific purposes, and serve particular functions. The OED is unique and historically important because of its ambitious goal: to show when each word was first used in writing, and give examples from said writing to illustrate each meaning and nuance of the word.

To this end, those who created it enlisted a vast army of volunteers who searched through old books (and new too), and sent in words in context, with reference to book and page. Forms were created for this purpose, and the committee hired a few dozen clerks to sort through and catalogue the submissions.

Even with this vast machine, the dictionary still took over 75 years to complete, from the time it was first planned, to the day the last installment rolled off the press. No one person was involved from beginning to end; the project was the work of many individuals.

However, one name stands out above the rest: James Murray, who was in charge of the process for several decades. He is the Professor of the title, the educated and energetic man whose vision did more to make the OED a reality than any other person. He created the streamlined process for volunteers, and personally wrote tens of thousands of definitions.

The other character is perhaps even more fascinating. William Minor was a volunteer who contributed many thousands of words and quotes. Along with one other person, he was recognized as the greatest of the volunteers, and was specifically named in the acknowledgements. A quick reader, with an analytical mind, he stayed just ahead of the publication alphabetically, submitting timely and much appreciated information.

He was also confined in an insane asylum after committing a murder.

The book tells the stories of these two men, and how they came to be friends and collaborators. It also tells of the history of English language dictionaries (with quite a few pages dedicated to Samuel Johnson, of course), and the history of the OED project. Each chapter starts with a definition of a key word, quoted from the OED of course.

Winchester spins a compelling tale, one that is unusual, tragic, and redemptive. He also clears away some of the false narratives which became popular after a writer essentially made up a “more romantic” version of the story. Winchester obtained the government archives with the primary sources for use in writing this book. He is able to cite and quote extensively from the correspondence between Murray and Minor and others, and piece together the actual facts.

I won’t say too much about Murray. His story is conventional, and thus not that interesting, until the dictionary project. And even then, like many a diligent person who accomplished great things, his hard work and quiet brilliance don’t make for a good tale. Well behaved editors may make history, but they cannot carry a tale by themselves.

Minor is much more fascinating, because his life goes awry. Born to American missionaries in Sri Lanka, he seemed destined to a successful career as a Physician. During the Civil War, he was called on to serve the Union, and something happened to his psyche as a result. Winchester does the best he can with limited information, but he has to speculate as to exactly what happened. Many Irish immigrants fought in the Union Army - and did so in order to learn how to fight so they could kick the bloody British out of their homeland. When it became apparent that they were often sent in as cannon fodder - and after the Emancipation Proclamation, which the Irish feared would mean competition for their jobs, many Irish deserted. When caught, they weren’t executed - soldiers were needed, after all - but they were visibly branded, which ruined their chances at remaining incognito in an Irish rebellion.

As physician, Minor was certainly called on to dress the brand afterwards, and there is evidence that the branding was done by doctors in many cases. In any event, something clearly went wrong, because Minor started to develop a paranoia about Irishmen, who he felt would revenge themselves on him.

It wasn’t just trauma, however. That served as a trigger for what we would now diagnose as paranoid schizophrenia. Minor became obsessed with the idea that people were breaking into his room at night and poisoning or sexually abusing him. The Army eventually realized he was no longer functional, and gave him a lifetime disability pension. Minor, in an attempt to cure himself with a change in scenery, moved to London. It was there that he caused a tragedy.

In one of his nightly fits, he imagined a man was in his room, charged out with his service revolver, and shot a worker walking to his job in the wee hours of the morning. There was no doubt of his guilt - he admitted it, and was horrified at what he had done. There was also no real doubt that he was mentally ill, and that the illness caused him to do what he did. He was confined to an asylum.

Minor was rather a model inmate, however. Sure, he remained crazy enough with his endless delusions. But he was non-violent and cooperative. As a result, he was given significant privileges, including the chance to acquire a library. It was around this time that he became aware of the OED project, and began to submit words. Eventually, Murray was curious about why Minor never came to meet him, and discovered his situation. He would visit Minor regularly over the decades, and the two became friends.

Much of the book is about Minor, because of his colorful history. Winchester also discusses the change in the treatment of the mentally ill from when Minor committed his crime, to his death many years later. It is interesting to see the change in understanding, even if treatment wouldn’t become effective until long after.

Minor’s life took a somewhat tragic turn in his 70s. Probably suffering from dementia in addition to his other issues, he decided to take a violent approach to his sexual guilt, and cut his penis off. As a result of this, strings were pulled (including with Winston Churchill, then relatively unknown) to have Minor returned to the United States, where his brother could care for him. That part was good, but the last decade of Minor’s life was a long decline.

A few other things in this book were fun. Murray initially gained admission to the Philological Society through the efforts of a certain pigheaded and rude phonetician named Henry Sweet. Said person was the model used by George Bernard Shaw for Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, later adapted for the musical My Fair Lady. Winchester notes that Rex Harrison wasn’t exactly acting in his part - he too was that rude and pigheaded himself.

I also have to quote the ever-pithy Samuel Johnson.

One woman even disparaged Johnson for failing to include obscenities. “No, Madam, I hope I have not daubed my fingers,” he replied, archly. “I find, however, that you have been looking for them.”

Minor was one of two contributors who were specially recognized. The other was a certain Fitzedward Hall, likewise American, and likewise a bit insane. A successful professor of Sanskrit at a university in India, he had an argument with a colleague, left abruptly, and became a hermit in England for the rest of his life.

This was a fun read. Winchester combines solid research with good storytelling, and ties things together well. I shall definitely be reading more of his books.

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