The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

General Thoughts

I found this story rather emotionally conflicting. It seemed to be inspirational despite the fact that the circumstances it describes are rather depressing overall. This story really highlights the need within individuals to contribute to their society, both Dr. Murray and Dr. Minor exhibit this trait in different ways. James Murray was already extremely gifted and accomplished before he began work on the dictionary. Despite this, he accepted the job as its editor, and continually pushed himself. He felt the need to do more in life simply because he knew he was capable, there for he felt an instinctive obligation. Dr. Minor was left with almost no other way of contributing so significantly to the world, but by taking the opportunity he was given, and immersing himself in it entirely, he was given some sense of satisfaction.

The need to contribute exists in everyone. It’s within those that may seem like they’ve already accomplished plenty, and it exists even within the criminally insane.

Highlighted Quotes

These are the some of the portions of the book I chose to highlight (underline, sticky, etc).

In reference to the Oxford English Dictionary

“It took more than seventy years to create the twelve tombstone size volumes that made up the first edition of what was to become the great Oxford English Dictionary” Page 25.

“Now there is a twenty-volume second edition of the dictionary, with all the material from the supplements fully integrated with the original work, and new words and forms that have emerged in the years since inserted as needs be.” Page 31.

In reference to Dr. James Murray, born 1837.

“He was a precocious, very serious little boy: he turned steadily into an astonishingly learned teenager…for as well as having a working knowledge by the time he was fifteen of French, Italian, German, and Greek, he, like all educated children then, knew Latin.” Page 32.

“He left school at fourteen, as did most of the poorer children of the British Isles. There was no money for hi to go on to the fee-paying grammar school in nearby Melrose, and in any case his parents enjoyed some confidence in the lad’s ability to teach himself… Their hopes proved well founded.” Page 33.

In reference to Dr. Minor’s service as an Army Surgeon during the American Civil War.

“An Irish deserter, who had been convicted at drumhead of running away during the terrors of the Wilderness, was sentenced to be branded.” Pages 60.

“He pleaded with the court; he pleaded with his guards. He cried, he screamed, he struggled. But the soldiers held him down, and Doctor Minor took the hot iron from a basket of glowing coals that had been hastily borrowed from the brigade farrier. He hesitated for a moment - a hesitation that betrayed his own reluctance - for this, he wondered briefly, truly permitted under the terms of his Hippocratic oath? The officers grunted for him to continue - he pressed the glowing metal onto the Irishman’s cheek.” Page 61.

In reference to the fact that the English language lacked a comprehensive dictionary.

“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?” Page 83.

“The second matter the dictionary makers were ignoring was the coming recognition elsewhere…with European rivals bending before the might of British power; and with new colonies securely founded in the Americas and India, which spread the English language and English concepts far beyond the shores of England- English was trembling on the verge of becoming a global language. It was starting to become and important vehicle for the conduct of international commerce, arms, and law.” Page 87.

“The language should be accorded just the same dignity and respect as those other standards that science was then also defining. What is blue or yellow?…How hot is boiling water?…” Page 91.

In reference to Dr. Minor finding purpose in the Dictionary

“Minor’s self-worth began, at least marginally, to reemerge…Yet in its very value lay a problem, as Minor saw it. The doctor swiftly came to realize, and was daunted by the realization, the simple fact that this great work’s immense potential value to history, to posterity, and to the English-speaking world.” Page 133.

“Minor wants desperately to know that he is being helpful. He wants to feel involved. He wants respectability, and he wants those in the asylum to know that he is special, different from others in their cells.” Page 156.