I love the Oxford English Dictionary. I first got untethered access to it in college (Hurray for the benefits of ludicrously overpriced education!), now granted this was in attempting to find a ‘unique’ interpretation to a couple of John Donne poems by tracing the etymological roots of the words. I pretty much just settled with the “John Donne really really wanted to have God to ravish him and isn’t that a strange and slightly upsetting notion”. It wasn’t quite the paper the professor wanted, but I’ll be damned if I’m going nitpick prepositions when that is hanging over my head.
And going through that paper (and every paper after it) I always just sort of took the book for granted. It was the OED. The book elitists like me used to twist things into shapes they had no intention of being in the first place. It was our monster, the beast we wielded to bend the very essence of language to our maniacal endings.
It turns out the OED, like all monsters, has quite a sordid history. Its conception is neither clean, nor linear, but it is very, very interesting. Containing intrigue, murder, and one very mistreated penis. The Professor and the Madman is everything a bibliophile could possibly ask for.
This is Winchester’s first book about the OED, but not his last. The second, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, appears to be more focused on the OED coming together as a whole. This initial volume appears to be it’s more salacious and gossipy older sister. It’s about the OED, sure, but it is more concerned with Dr. William Chester Minor and the tragic life that allowed him to contribute so heavily to the task of assembling God’s One True Dictionary.
Reading through it becomes increasingly clear just how hard it was to collect all the information the book has on display. Winchester chronicles pieces of his journey in uncovering the all but forgotten life of William Chester Minor and the depths of information he is able to uncover (combined with his wryly humorous style) make this a fascinating and noteworthy journey into the creation of one of the greatest lexicographic accomplishments in human history.
“The English language was spoken and written—but at the time of Shakespeare it was not defined, not fixed. It was like the air—it was taken for granted, the medium that enveloped and defined all Britons. But as to exactly what it was, what its components were—who knew?” ― Simon Winchester, The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary