Showing posts with label Madman and the Professor; The. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Madman and the Professor; The. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

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

Oh how I love the title of this book. The whole time I was reading it, I would broach the topic of books with other people in the hopes that they would ask what I was reading right now, and I could burst out with 'A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY!' Trust me, it was a riot every time.
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The key to this book's success (in that I liked it, not that it made millions) is that it starts with the murder and then dwells for a good piece on the insanity, so that by the time you hit the chapter on the history of dictionaries (no joke), you're well and truly hooked.
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And then you're forced to contemplate a time before dictionaries, before you could look things up. Remember before the internets? When you couldn't just Google 'Soylent Green'? I know, right? How did we know anything? So, think of that and then times it by a million, because Shakespeare couldn't even look up the word 'elephant.' He had to assume it meant what he thought it meant, because there weren't a terrible lot of elephants kicking around Elizabethan England.*
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Ok, to sum up, a distinguished American living in England, named W. C. Minor, goes stark raving mad and shoots a fellow, unprovoked. He is sent to the loony bin. Another man named James Murray is given the herculean task of continuing the oft-abandoned Oxford English Dictionary, the first of its kind to stab at including all words in the English language. Huge, right? 414 825 definitions, all told. And not just half-assed definitions like 'Squalor: the quality or state of being squalid' (thanks for that, Merriam-Webster), but these elaborate, concise, elegant definitions that cover all shades of meaning, and provide quotations from English literature to support those meanings. Remember, this is before the innernets.
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So Murray has to catalogue each word ever used, the first time it was used in print, and then each time the shade of meaning shifted. Who's the madman now? To do so, he sent out a call to all English-speakers of the day (so, Britons and Americans), to read all their books and write down all the words, each on a separate piece of paper, with the date the book was written and the sentence the word appeared in, and then send in their pieces of paper to his little tin shack, where he and his underlings would sort and catalogue the several tons of paper that soon flowed in.
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Seeing as how it would take years to read a single book in this way, what with all the writing you had to do (remember: before computers), who better to assist in this task than a confirmed lunatic? W. C. Minor, besides being locked up for murder, was a literary genius. With countless hours and dollars and books at his disposal, this one nutter contributed more specific, useful definitions to the 70-year project than anyone else. How servicable.
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Winchester has done a fairly good job of unearthing the whole story behind the infamous OED, and relates it in a straightforward, scholarly manner occasionally tinged with humor. Even if you're not a mega-nerd like me, this book is pretty easy reading. I tend to get bogged down in dates and names, but there are really only a handful of people involved here and I can cheerfully ignore the dates, because Winchester suffixes almost every date mentioned with 'nineteen years after the project was begun' or 'thirty years after Minor had been committed' so that I don't have to keep track. Thanks, Simon.
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Eight caterpillars.
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*I had to Google 'Shakespeare' and 'era' to bring you this sentence. Thanks, intarwebs!

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