The Professor and the Madman

professor_web-300x440 The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Simon Winchester
Published in 1998
242 pages (paperback)

Each year, the esteemed lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries examine the new entrees in our vernacular to determine which gems will become the latest entries in their online dictionary. Last year, even Buzzfeed lamented some of the “unfortunate additions” in a post entitled “Twerking, FOMO, Squee, And 11 Other Words The Oxford Dictionary Just Added.” That’s right, “squee,” an exclamation “used to express great delight or excitement”–along with its verb forms: squees, squeeing, and squeed—was added to Oxford’s online dictionary in 2013.

And guess what? This year’s list isn’t any better.

Let’s play a game. I’m going to give you a list of (mostly) terrible slang terms and you tell me which can be found in the Oxford’s online dictionary and which you’d have to look up on urbandictionary.com. Ready? Here we go:

  • YOLO
  • Amazeballs
  • Neckbeard
  • Side-eye
  • Side boob
  • Humblebrag
  • Cray
  • Binge-watch

Shockingly, if you guessed that all of these words/phrases made the Oxford Dictionary’s cut this year (you can see the full list here), then you guessed correctly. Even more shocking still, it seems as though Oxford relied pretty heavily on Urban Dictionary’s definitions in drafting their new additions. The entries for “neckbeard” are pretty telling examples. Here is Urban Dictionary’s definition: “Facial hair that does not exist on the face, but instead on the neck. Almost never well groomed”; here is Oxford’s: “A growth of hair on a man’s neck, especially when regarded as indicative of poor grooming.” Way to make Urban Dictionary’s definition sound just a tiny bit posher, Oxford.

Now, to be fair, Oxford’s online dictionary is like a wild and unruly sibling next to its staid and stodgy sister publication, the Oxford English Dictionary (or just OED to those in the know). But even the staid and stodgy OED had some slangy new additions this year (like “hashtag” and “selfie”). A word’s inclusion in Oxford’s online dictionary is the first step toward publication in the OED, so it may just be a matter of time before “amazeballs” finds its way into the OED.

Is this what the learned lexicographers of the London Philological Society had in mind as they embarked on the creation of the first edition of the OED (which was published in alphabetical volumes from 1888 to 1928)? Or is The Guardian’s Myf Warhurst correct: “have the Oxford Dictionaries lost the plot?

While I have to agree with Warhurst that “chillax” and “amazeballs” are not words that people over the age of nine actually say in conversation with a straight face, they are words that have (for better or for worse) entered our collective lexicon. And back when Dr. James Murray, the editor of the first edition of the OED, began to compile definitions for the dictionary, there was one important principle guiding its creation: “rigorous dependence on gathering quotations from published or otherwise recorded uses of English and using them to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language” (emphasis added). This guiding principle is actually what distinguished the OED from dictionaries that came before it. Earlier dictionaries focused only rare or difficult words (like the early dictionary entitled: A Table Alphabeticall . . . of hard unusual English Words, which was intended to be used “for the benefit & help of Ladies, gentlewomen or any other unskilful persons, Whereby they may more easily and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in the Scriptures, Sermons or elsewhere, and also be made able to vse them aptly themselves.”). In contrast, the OED was all-inclusive–hard or easy, unusual or common, every word was included.

I know all this, of course, because I just finished reading The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, a book that details the making of the original edition of the OED. The book discusses the extremely slow-going and painstaking process of compiling all of the dictionary’s definitions, focusing in particular on two men who played integral roles in the dictionary’s success: Dr. James Murray and Dr. W.C. Minor, the titular Professor and Madman, respectively.

Rating: 3.5/5

The book begins with a preface that details a “popular myth” about the Professor and the Madman. Dr. Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, had traveled fifty miles by train to meet Dr. Minor, “who was among the most prolific of the thousands of volunteer contributors whose labors lay at the core of the dictionary’s creation.” At the time of their first meeting, the two had worked together on the dictionary for almost twenty years:

At the railway station a polished landau and a liveried coachman were waiting, and with James Murray aboard they clip-clopped back through the lanes of rural Berkshire. After twenty minutes or so the carriage turned up a long drive lined with tall poplars, drawing up eventually outside a huge and rather forbidding red-brick mansion. A solemn servant showed the lexicographer upstairs, and into a book-lined study, where behind an immense mahogany desk stood a man of undoubted importance. Dr. Murray bowed gravely, and launched into the brief speech of greeting that he had so long rehearsed:

“A very good afternoon to you, sir. I am Dr. James Murray of the London Philological Society, and Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. It is indeed an honour and a pleasure to at long last make your acquaintance—for you must be, kind sir, my most assiduous helpmeet, Dr. W.C. Minor?”

There was a brief pause, a momentary air of mutual embarrassment. A clock ticked loudly. There were muffled footsteps in the hall. A distant clank of keys. And then the man behind the desk cleared his throat and he spoke:

“I regret, kind sir, that I am not. It is not at all as you suppose. I am in fact the Governor of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Dr. Minor is most certainly here. But he is an inmate. He has been a patient here for more than twenty years. He is our longest staying resident.”

After reading the preface, I was hooked. And, for the most part,the rest of the book didn’t disappoint. There are a couple stretches that are slow (like certain aspects of the men’s personal histories), but, by and large, the book reads like fiction—it is fast-paced, interesting, and exciting (War? Check! Murder? Check! Dismemberment? Check!). Appropriately, each chapter begins with an excerpted OED word entry that corresponds to an event or person highlighted in that chapter (the words range from “bedlam” to “sesquipedalian”). The words and definitions serve as a fun tie-in to the OED–they bring to life the work that is being discussed throughout the book.

The making of the OED does not seem like an inherently fascinating topic for roughly 250 pages of text, but I was pleasantly surprised. I learned more than I ever needed to know about the history of dictionaries and the creation of the OED (the one word that was actually lost during its preparation, the number of volumes that made up the first edition, the manner by which Dr. Murray solicited volunteer contributors like Dr. Minor, the books to which the scholars and volunteers looked for example quotations . . .), but I was rarely bored. So, WDYT? To learn a bunch of  amazeballs facts about the OED, chillax with this little book. Don’t throw shade. YOLO.

The hype:

  • A National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for General Nonfiction 

Who should read it: Bryan (i.e., people who fancy themselves too old to enjoy fiction anymore); word nerds.

One final noteThank you, John, for recommending (and letting me borrow!) this book!

Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:

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5 thoughts on “The Professor and the Madman

  1. I read it a few years ago and really liked it. But I’m a total word nerd, so that makes sense. 🙂

  2. Great review, and this sounds like a fascinating book! Personally, I think the word ‘amazeballs’ should be tortured and then cast into outer darkness for eternity…but…it has started appearing in books this year so I suppose it really has to go into dictionaries. Oh dear! Why couldn’t people just stick with good old-fashioned words – like ‘groovy’ for instance… 😉

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the review. Let me know if you end up reading the book.

      I agree with you about “amazeballs” (“YOLO” and “chillax” are in the same boat for me) . . . but, on the flip side, I’m a big fan of “binge-watch” and “side boob” and “hot mess.” You win some, you lose some, I suppose.

  3. Pingback: TBR Thursday 38… | FictionFan's Book Reviews

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