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

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The book that first inspired me to look into this story was Jonathon Green’s Chasing the Sun (Jonathan Cape, London, and Henry Holt, New York, 1996), which devoted a page and a half to the tale, and led me, via its bibliography, to the rather more celebrated work about the making of the OED, Caught in the Web of Words (Oxford and Yale University Presses, 1977), written by the great editor’s granddaughter, K. M. Elisabeth Murray. In both cases the tale of the first meeting between Murray and Minor relies on the well-known myth; but it was not until Elizabeth Knowles wrote a more accurate account in the quarterly journal Dictionaries that some of the truth of the encounter became more properly known. Both of the books will delight the enthusiast; the journal tends toward the academic, but since—at least superficially—the disciplines of lexicography are frankly not too taxing, many may profit from looking at it as well.

For those interested in the basic principles behind the making of word books, Sidney Landau’s definitive Dictionaries—The Art and Craft of Lexicography (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1984) is an essential read. For those iconoclasts wishing to understand the flaws in the OED, John Willinsky explains much in his rather ill-tempered Empire of Words—The Reign of the OED (Princeton University Press, 1994), which offers a politically correct revisionist view of James Murray’s creation—albeit from a somewhat admiring stance. It is worth reading, even if just to make one’s blood boil.

Copies of Doctor Johnson’s Dictionary can usually still be found quite easily—reproductions of the large-format two-volume editions have been produced on presses in such unlikely settings as the city of Beirut, from where I recently purchased a copy for $250. It is difficult to find a good first edition for under $15,000. But there is a witty and useful distillation, with words selected by E. L. McAdam and George Milne (Pantheon, New York, 1963; paperback reprint, Cassell, London, 1995).

The Oxford University Press deserves a history of its own, and indeed has several: I recommend Peter Sutcliffe’s The Oxford University Press: An Informal History (Oxford University Press, 1978), which covers the saga of the making of the OED very well, and with reasonable impartiality.

The American Civil War is of course very comprehensively covered. The best book relating to the fighting in which Doctor Minor played a small but, for him, crucial part, is Gordon C. Rhea’s The Battle of the Wilderness (Louisiana State University Press, 1994), which I enjoyed enormously. D. P. Conyngham’s 1867 classic The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns has recently been reissued (Fordham University Press, New York, 1994), with an introduction by Lawrence F. Kohl, whose help with my own book I acknowledge elsewhere. Among the many books on Civil War medicine I enjoyed George Worthington Adams’s Doctors in Blue (Louisiana State University Press, 1980) and In Hospital and Camp by Harold Elk Straubing (Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pa., 1993). I also took time to read the relevant chapters in that elegant giant of a book The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, by Bruce Catton and James M. Macpherson (Viking, New York, 1996), which answers practically every imaginable question about the minutiae of those four years of bloody fighting.

The nature of the possible mental ailments that plagued Doctor Minor, which may have been triggered by his experiences during the war, are comprehensively explained by Gordon Claridge in Origins of Mental Illness (ISHK Malor Books, Cambridge, Mass., 1995). Andrew Scull’s splendid Masters of Bedlam (Princeton University Press, 1996) offers a fascinating history of the mad-doctoring trade before the times of psychiatric enlightenment.

I looked to Roy Porter—also an expert on madness and its treatment—for his rightly acclaimed social history of the city where Minor committed his murder: London: A Social History (Harvard, 1994) sets the scene admirably, and remains one of the best books on England’s remarkable capital.

 

But the one book that above all should be read in conjunction with this small volume is one of the biggest and most impressive works of scholarship to be found—the twelve-volume first edition, the 1933 supplement, the four supplementary volumes of Robert Burchfield, or the fully integrated twenty-volume Second Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary itself.

It makes for an expensive and bulky set of books—which is why nowadays the CD-ROM is much preferred—but it does, most important of all to his fans, acknowledge formally the existence and contributions of Doctor Minor. And I find that somehow the simple discovery of his name, buried as it is among those of the contributors who helped make the OED the great totem that it remains today, is always an intensely touching moment.

While it is of course in and of itself no justification for ever needing to own the great book, the finding of Minor’s name presents perhaps the finest of examples of the kind of serendipitous moment for which the OED is justly famous. And few would disagree that serendipity, in dictionaries, is a most splendid thing indeed.

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