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    Review of THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN by Simon Winchester

    Perennial, 1999

    Review by Jennifer Vilches

    The Professor and the Madman contains a small, fascinating facet of history. It explores the 70 year effort to create the Oxford English Dictionary, but focuses on the story of two men in particular. Dr. Murray, the first editor to make any significant progress on the OED, and Dr. Minor, a prolific contributor to the effort. The drama comes from the fact that Dr. Minor was a murderer and long-term inmate in a mental institution.

    The OED is not a dictionary like the one you will find on your shelf. Each letter has its own volume and each word entry has several supporting quotations to demonstrate the proper usage. Dr. Murray broadcast a wide plea for volunteers to supply appropriate quotations from literature. Dr. Minor provided a consistent stream of high quality contributions. The stories behind these two men humanize what could otherwise be a dry recital of facts and figures. The author delves into the tragic events that unfold in Dr. Minor's life as well as detailing the struggles of Dr. Murray to organize such an immense undertaking. There is enough history to satisfy history buffs, but also enough side stories to entertain the casual reader. The writing style is somewhat formal, but not so stilted as to be difficult to read.

    Simon Winchester now has another book out about the Oxford English Dictionary: The Meaning of Everything (buy it). If you are interested in a broader view of the history of the OED instead of focusing on the story of Dr. Murray and Minor, then that might be a better choice.

    This one isn't exactly about writing, but it's about words and the people who make them. I found it a fascinating and worthwhile addition to my library (RP).

    Three Stars

    Reviewed 3/19/04

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    What do you think? Too generous? Too stingy? Or did I miss the entire point? Send your comments to Give me the okay to use your name and I'll publish all the comments that fit (and don't use unprintable language).