The Oxford English Dictionary is a tool for the learned. It’s a necessity and hence one cannot imagine life without it. Our use of the dictionary is vast but bizarrely nobody contemplates the origin of such a desideratum. If one even begins to fathom the effort and time put into such a thing, the gravity of the herculean task truly begins to hit you. The device is simple; its use facile but the story behind the concoction is nothing short of brilliance.
The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words is a book by Simon Winchester that was first published in England in 1998. It was retitled The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary in the United States and Canada. This book tells us the story behind the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and its most prolific contributor. A masterfully researched and eloquently written book, this one is the extra-ordinary tale of madness, genius and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men. The compilation of the OED began in 1857; it 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. The dictionary project finally had a publisher 20 years after the idea was conceived. It would be another 50 years before the entire dictionary was complete.
Winchester had been a journalist for almost 3 decades and had written a dozen travel inspired books, yet his idea to pen down the book initially was met with rejection. Only when Harper Collins editor Larry Ashmead read the proposal and championed the book did Winchester pursue the necessary research. The bizarre story of a bizarre man’s contribution to one of the world’s greatest gift became a major success. A film may also be on the cards in the near future. Perhaps the greatest character of the story is the dictionary itself. Greg Sewell noted “The Professor and the Madman interweaves the sagas of Murray, Minor, and the OED with all the fascination of a well-crafted mystery, compelling the reader to find out how two such remarkable men came to cooperate on such a ludicrously ambitious project.” This tale is one of the better works of non-fiction and deserves a read.