Book Reviews of The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
The Professor the Madman A Tale of Murder Insanity the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Author: Simon Winchester
ISBN-13: 9780060994860
ISBN-10: 006099486X
Publication Date: 8/1999
Pages: 272
Rating:
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 289

3.9 stars, based on 289 ratings
Publisher: Perennial
Book Type: Paperback
Reviews: Amazon | Write a Review

61 Book Reviews submitted by our Members...sorted by voted most helpful

reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 774 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 16
The pretext for this book is rather slight one of the significant volunteer contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary was, although an intelligent and educated man, also an inmate of an insane asylum, confined for a murder committed while in the throes of a schizophrenic paranoid delusion.
While, as a revelation, this fact may be less than earth-shattering, Winchester uses this story of the inmate, Dr. W.C. Minor, the man he killed, George Merrett, and the main editor of the OED, Dr. James Murray, as a vehicle for all kinds of interesting details he goes on quite a number of tangents, but theyre always immensely well-written and fascinating! Winchester isnt afraid to stray from dry, historical writing he definitely makes guesses, fleshes things out for colorful effect but his research is also obviously thoroughly done, and he also stops short of fictifying (ok, thats not a word, but I think it should be) his topic its always made clear when his scenarios are theoretical.
Id highly recommend this book not only for those interested in dictionaries and lexicography, but for anyone interested in Victorian England, the Civil War, treatment of the mentally ill, or any of a number of other topics...
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 20 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 11
Really engaging - you'd never think that the creation of the Oxford English dictionary would have such crazy history, but reads like a really great detective novel, even though it's completely factual. Couldn't put it down, amazed by what I learned from reading it.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 40 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 8
An absolutely fascinating history mingling two stories: the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and one of its leading contributors, a brilliant, but insane American confined in a British asylum. Full of fascinating facts and quirky personalities, it reads more like a novel.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on
Helpful Score: 6
This is a great story if you like murder books that incorporate a lot of history of the peoriod and also combines two very diffrent stories into one. I loved that this book teaches you such interesting history and teaches you about the great undertaking of the compiling of the first edition of the Oxford dictionary. If you love language you will love the passion it shows towards it and the part a man in the hospital for the criminally insane played a large roll in the compiling of quotes.Not a breezy read but a good one.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 26 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 3
I enjoyed this history more than most but am fascinated with the OED. It isn't a quick read and seems to lose some of its initial steam but it was interesting. I would recommend it to any English geek I know.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 7 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 3
Who know that the OED went thru such strange yet fruitful birth pains? I had always wondered who did the first dictionary full length, and how. This book explained that and more. I thought the author did a fabulous jobportarying Dr. Minor. The author showed great compassion to the doctor. I would have liked to learn a bit more about Mr. Murray. The author makes reference to a book written about him by his grand daughter; too bad he couldn't add some of that info to this book.
All in all this is an engrossing read. The history of the stumbles, fits and starts in regareds to the dictionary gets a bit tedious, but after the first half the pacing is quite good.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 404 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 2
What a great story about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary! It's not a stuff tale of facts and data, but a light and breezy tale of two men who love language. Light and breezy? Yes, the use of language does not mire the reader in details, but actually enhances the experience. There is some history of mental health and evolution of it.
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Helpful Score: 2
Okay, its a good thing this is a short book. While the story itself is very interesting, it isn't that long of a story. To make it long enough for a book, the author puts in a lot of filler- every chapter starts with a word definition, information about mental illness and a lot of repeating of the same information. I found my self starting to skim when information was repeated throughout every chapter- Dr Minor's experiences in the civil war; descriptions of Dr Minor's cells in the asylum; Dr Minor's dillusions; the widow of the slain man was pregnant with several more children at home- everything was repeated several times everywhere. The author apparently considers himself a wit- his "humour" was injected in several paces. If this story were made into a movie where the story alone is presented with maybe a little literary license taken to give some of the lesser characters some interest, I would pay to see it.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 12 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 2
This was an interesting book, although not for the faint of heart. At times the reading got a little dry going into the details of creating the dictionary and how a word was properly defined. But I am glad I read it. It was thought provoking. I mean, have you ever thought about how you would even go about creatinga dictionary? I found the author to sometimes be a little romantic in his renderings, but that made the personal stories of the book more appealing. I did enjoy it but it took a while to wade through the dry bits.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 9 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
Fascinating story! I couldn't put it down. Who'd think that the writing of the Oxford Dictionary could be so interesting.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 43 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
An excellent book focusing on one amateur contributor to the OED and through that decidedly different lens (the man was a paranoid schizophrenic) telling also the larger tale of how the dictionary was originally compiled. I found it to be highly interesting and an easy read -
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 2 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
For such a fascinating story I thought the book would be less dry. Nonetheless, an interesting slice of history, irresistible for a dictionary junkie.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 85 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
I really loved this book, but I am also one of those people that like to read the dictionary as well...
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on
Helpful Score: 1
Interesting and engaging...maybe it suffered a bit from my reading it after Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, which was denser and more suspenseful and full of nerdy things about wireless telegraphing.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 26 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
A really fascinating partly fictional account of the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, focused on the relationship between two of the principal contributors, one of whom was in an insane asylum.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 67 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
i'VE discovered I just love Simon Winchester. This could have been a very dull book. After all, who cares about a stuffy ol' dictionary? Well, now I do. In fact, I'm hankering after a complete set of the OED, thanks to this book. It is a treat. I read it through in two sittings - or I should say, "lyings", since I read lying on my sofa.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 92 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
This is the story of two remarkable men whose genius and obsessions led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. As definitions were collected, Professor James Murray discovered that one man, Dr. W.C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor was an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 84 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
Winchester has a writing style that makes for very quick reading. This was my first book by him, but it was very interesting and well put together; I will definitely read more of his books.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 11 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
If you're a word fanatic, you'll love this book. It's about a dictionary, so don't get this expecting all kinds of drama. It's a great piece of history! I loved it.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 35 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
masterfully researched and eloquently written tale of madness, genius and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary - and literary history..."linguistic detective story of the decade" William Safire NY Times
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 404 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
This is one of my favorite books of the year.
It is a fascinating study of compiling and writing the great Oxford English Dictionary, the first full dictionary of the English language.
It took 70 years, and very few partial dictionaries existed at the time it was begun, mid 1800s.
As one amazon review states:
paints a rich portrait of the OED's leading light, Professor James Murray, who spent more than 40 years of his life on a project he would not see completed in his lifetime. Winchester traces the origins of the drive to create a "Big Dictionary" down through Murray and far back into the past; the result is a fascinating compact history of the English language (albeit admittedly more interesting to linguistics enthusiasts than historians or true crime buffs).
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 65 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
The strange story, with strange twists where least expected, about one of the major research contributors to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I already knew and loved OED (wish I had the entire new set at home!), so this backstory likely stays on my shelves with other related works. Easy read, interesting obscure details, great fun!
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Helpful Score: 1
loved the definitions at the beginning of each chapter
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 173 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
Who ever thought about how a dictionary comes into being - and more than that - how did the first comprehensive tome on the english language get assembled? Amazingly - it was with the help of 1,000's of volunteers, but one in particular - who scoured books for words and their usage. This book follows not only the mechanics of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, but the unusual role that a "lunatic" played in this seminal work.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on
Helpful Score: 1
Who knew a book about the making of a dictionary could be so fascinating!! The rich history of the Oxford English Dictionary begins with a murderer, a lunatic, and ultimately the greatest work ever produced.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on + 279 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 1
I have always wondered how words got their spelling and their meaning. Who decided on what was right and what was wrong. This book explains all of that and more. I found it to be extremely compelling. This 'madman' ravaged by our own civil war made a huge contribution to it. Unbelievable. I'd recommend to anyone as curious as I was to the origin of words. Great story. It is hard to get into the first 20 pages after that. Wonderful!
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on
A fascinating piece of history!
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I just loved this story. Only a person with very little else to do, could have made the kind of contribution this man did. The nerd in me just loved his methodology for finding "words used in a sentance."... Highly recommend!
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on
Thought this book would be a good read from the cover but I was disappointed. Although the story itself is interesting I found the book dull and not well put together. Also, The writer has a tendency to input his own subjective analyses on the personalities of the characters which gets pretty annoying.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on
Liked the concept of the book though tie writing felt like it was pieced together.
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There once was a surgeon named Minor
Who became a prodigious definer
Though he had a large brain
He was also insane
Could the irony be any finer?

* * * * *


I really enjoyed this book it was, as I noted in my "in progress" review, quite the interdisciplinary social history.

Though the subject seems extremely dry (the development of the Oxford English Dictionary), when you think about it--the task of cataloging and defining EVERY SINGLE WORD in the English language--it becomes supremely mind-boggling.

In addition to the history of the dictionary, W.C. Minor--a U.S. citizen who had been confined in an insane asylum for murder--played a central and integral role.

And their intertwined stories (along with that of Dr. Murray the dictionary's editor) hung together in a fascinating way. My only fault with the book was at the end, where the author rather than dispassionately recounting the stories, begins to wax philosophical on the nature of insanity and the treatment of the insane.
reviewed The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary on
Enjoyable and well crafted. Highly recommend.
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This was probably a fine newspaper article, but as a novel, it was a stretch. The making of the Oxford English Dictionary was an awesome feat and there were some interesting facts in the book about the long process of amassing all of the information. The way the author treated the life of the "madman" was tedious at best and tacky at worst. He then wraps it up with some generic speculation about mental illness in general which read as something to simply fill up space in the book. I would love to see somebody take this story and turn it into a great work of fiction. This book was not it.
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This is a fascinating glimpse into a small piece of history. The _Oxford English Dictionary_ took 70 years and legions of workers to research and complete. One of them, Dr. William Chester Minor, was a schizophrenic murderer confined in a hospital for the criminally insane in London. His prodigious and meticulous scholarship for over 20 years from his prison cell was important to the development of the OED.

If you are interested in words, in dictionaries, or in 19th century medical and legal procedures for people clearly and incurably "mad," this book is a must read.
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I agree with Rachelle that it was sort of pieced together, but considering the Dictionary was put together over such a long period of time, the story is the piecing together in itself.
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One of my favorites - riveting reading, suspenseful, and historically interesting too.
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A pretty quick read, but a very interesting story about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The story centers on two men -- one who is charged with organizing the making of the dictionary, and another who contributes greatly to it from his home at a mental institution for the criminally insane. I found the story of the making of the dictionary, which I realized I knew almost nothing about, at least as interesting as the story of the two men at the center of the story. Well-researched, well-written, and worth a read.
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this is a awesome book.I thought it would be boring cause it was a historical type, but it is not.
It gives the history of the making of the OED, and the people who contributed. Among them, is a brillian but scarred man.
Some really neat information and insight into the civil war and how doctors treated people.

He is in an insane asylum. This book charts his journey into madness and brilliance.
Very good book.
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A very interesting story in a book I could not put down. Not many people are interested in words and, especially, dictionaries these days because of texting and tweeting, but those of us who ponder on the compilation of an encyclopedia or dictionary will be fascinated by the efforts put forth to produce a great work of reference material we all will find useful at one time or another during our lives.
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This book lingered on my bookshelf for years because frankly, I was afraid it was going to be boring. I need not have worried; this book captured my attention and held it for all 242 pages and dare I say it: left me wanting more. The book is at its heart the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) but it's also a story about a murder, a civil war veteran who is psychotic, and a scholar who just needed some help in writing this huge book. The story covers about 80 or more years of history, both American and British, specifically as it relates to Oxford University. The author makes the story come alive and be interesting without being dull.
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Interesting tale that serves as the backdrop of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
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It is amazing to think of the inner struggles this man dealt with while giving so much of his great mind.
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Who would have thought that a book about making a dictionary would be so interesting?
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A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK AND NATIONAL BESTSELLER!

This book, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredlbe obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the "Oxford English Dictionary" - and literacy history. The compilation of the "OED" begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W.C. Minor, had submitted more then ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.
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Very interesting bit of history. I swapped this on a whim but I was pleased I got the chance to read it.
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madness/genius. two sides of the same coin. great book
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You need to keep a dictionary close by with this one.
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This is a facinating read about how the dictionary was created. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!
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Fascinating book about the writing of the Oxford Dictionary and the brilliant but tortured man who made much of it possible.
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This is a great read! So interesting to learn about how the Oxfor English Dictionary came about. Reads like a good detective story.
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This is a terrific read. There are a class of nonfiction books lately that take one thing and examine it down to a level that would never occur to you would be interesting - Cod, Salt, Longitude - but they really, really are. And this similar class of an unexamined, strange, fascinating twist in history.

The madman is an American physician who served on the bloody battlefronts of the American Civil War, then moved to England, where apparently he went mad, and killed a man. Confined to prison for the rest of his life, he got it in his head to answer an ad in the paper to contribute words, definitions, and examples of usage to the new comprehensive dictionary that would, in the end, take decades to complete: The Oxford English Dictionary. This madman became, over the years, the single most prolific contributor to the project. His samples of usage are still in the Oxford.

Even stranger, the editor of the dictionary did not know his most valued contributor was a madman and murderer confined to prison for life -- it was only many years later, when he went to visit his contributor that he found out.

Very well written, the right length, well paced, and very interesting. Highly recommended. (This same author's other nonfiction books are equally interesting!)
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Interesing, fun history of the writing of the oxford english dictionary.
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Witty and entertaining non-fiction.
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This book would have made a great magazine article. I found it rather tedious as a full-length book. Perhaps if I were a lexicographer or more philologically inclined I would have liked it better. The long definitions and word histories were just too much for me. I finished the book because I kept thinking it would pick up and get better - by the time I decided it wasn't going to, I was already more than half way through.
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It was a good story. The writer made it more interesting by interjecting definitions from the OED. He also used a number of large and unusual words.
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And you thought the Oxford English Dictionary was dull!
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Very interesting and readable - I really enjoyed it.
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This is an excellent story. I highly recommend it.
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From the back of the book: "The Professor and the Madman", masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the "Oxford English Dictionary"--and literary history. The compilation of the "OED", begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W.C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.
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Great book about the history of the Oxford English Dictionary.
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Loved this book.