The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

I am a huge English dork – that being said, not everyone will appreciate how very cool this book is. Anyone that has ever had to write a paper for an upper level literature class is probably well acquainted with a handy little research aid called The Oxford English Dictionary. In case you’re not familiar with this dictionary, it gives the etymological history of pretty much every word ever uttered. So, if you look up the word “mute,” for instance, you will learn its current meaning, but you will also learn that back in the day it meant “bird poo.” For that reason alone, everyone should know what The Oxford English Dictionary is. While the book (well, books) is pretty damned awesome on its own, the story of how it came to be is almost better.

Winchester eloquently explains that the editor of this undertaking, Professor James Murray, sought the assistance of volunteers as he started compiling definitions in the late 1800s. He began consistently receiving definitions from a man named W.C. Minor, and the contributions were both numerous and of impressively high quality. Intrigued, Murray eventually discovered that Minor was actually a patient in an asylum, where he was committed after he was convicted of murder. Regardless, the two embarked on a working relationship that lasted for the duration of both men’s lives, and ultimately aided in the construction of one of the most valuable assets to the English language.

Winchester’s book is incredibly well-written and compelling. Sometimes non-fiction can be a bit dry, but his writing style paired with a legitimately fascinating story makes for a very entertaining and worthwhile read.

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2 thoughts on “The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester”

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