The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has long been criticized for being pretentious and elitist with a touch of sexism. But it has also been praised and continues to be praised as one of the most significant publications in history. Dictionaries existed in rudimentary form before the OED, but none compared in the amount of words defined nor the approach used to compile the words. While the subject matter of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester was intriguing, if not fascinating, the way it was written made me want to fall asleep. In fact, I did at one point.
As I mentioned above, the OED has been called out for being pretentious and elitist. Somehow, the author of this book managed to incorporate those same things into his writing style, which for me, was off-putting. At the beginning of each chapter a new word and its OED definition were used to set the stage for the rest of the chapter. For example, one chapter began with the word sesquipedalianism, which means you like using big words. I think there’s some irony in here somewhere but I don’t care enough to figure it out. And I know, I KNOW, this is a book about the dictionary, but after awhile it was exhausting trying to keep up when it was so boring.
For me, the most interesting part of the book was how the OED was actually compiled. I still don’t fully understand it because Winchester spends the least amount of time on this! Instead, he provides very detailed biographies about Professor James Murray, the editor of the OED, and Dr. William Chester Minor, one of the most highly regarded contributors. Minor’s story is compelling; he goes mad, shoots and kills someone, and ends up in an insane asylum for most of his life. I appreciated getting to know each of these men, but the level of detail was unnecessary.
Winchester mentions that Shakespeare never had a dictionary to consult when writing his plays; he was just that good. I am not that good. I’ve already used the dictionary/thesaurus at least twice to write this article. I am now in awe of this convenience after learning the OED took over seventy years to compile and understanding how tedious the process was. I won’t go into too much detail, but I think it’s important to share the most captivating part of the book. Murray sent out letters asking for volunteers to read and send in quotations of words as they appear in their natural habitat: books. This was supposed to accomplish two things: 1) provide real-world context for how the word was used, and 2) date the earliest use of each word. No dictionary had included either of these things before.
My Overall Thoughts
While I found parts of this book fascinating, most of it was tedious, unnecessary, and boring. It’s clear the author is passionate about the OED because he provides a lot of history and details, but the average reader doesn’t necessarily need to know these in order to appreciate the dictionary’s creation. I would recommend to anyone who is a real big word nerd, but that’s about it. 2 out of 5 stars.