THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A TALE OF MURDER, INSANITY, AND THE MAKING OF THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY by Simon Winchester
The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary was the most expansive and grueling project that Sir James Murray ever undertook. The goal of the project was to create a comprehensive record of every word in the English language, including its origins and examples of its usage in literary context. Such a feat would have been impossible were it not for all of the volunteer submissions from philologists around the country, who mailed Murray examples of words quoted in context from literature. One of the most frequent word-donors was a man called Dr. W. C. Minor. Outside the man’s obvious love of literature, Murray knew nothing about this doctor, but he was determined to meet the man who had provided so many of the OED’s valuable contextual examples. When he discovered that Minor was a convicted murderer incarcerated in an insane asylum, however, he realized that the doctor’s past was even more startling than his immense vocabulary.
This is one of my favorite non-fiction books for grown-ups. The history of the dictionary is fascinating to a word nerd like me, and each chapter is paired with entries from the OED. The story of Minor’s life and the glimpses into the nineteenth century criminal justice system are also very interesting. I highly recommend this book to non-fiction readers and lovers of words.
Readers who enjoy reading about criminal justice in previous centuries may also enjoy The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale.