Saturday, August 23, 2008

423: Murder and the OED

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester tells the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps the greatest reference work ever written on the English language. Wrapped around the story of the dictionary is the odd story of two men who were significantly involved in the project.

Professor James Murray was a scholar and linguist, and was selected by the Delegates of the Oxford University Press to take over the troubled OED project after the first attempt stalled under its own weight. He was given 10 years to complete the dictionary; it would ultimately take more than half a century, and he would die before the OED was finished.

Dr William Minor, an American Civil War veteran and surgeon, submitted more than ten thousand definitions, many of which were used in the final publication. He was also a murderer, and an inmate at an insane asylum.

The book succeeds in capturing the immensity of the task of creating a dictionary that defines every word in the English language, from everyday words like of to the obscure, regional or obsolete, such as the old Kentish word zykt (a local variant of the verb to see). The OED defined more than 400,000 words, using 1.8 million quotations to illustrate the correct usage of each.

The author slices through the myth and legend that has grown up around this story to find the true story, which is even stranger than the fiction. A highly recommended, very entertaining book.

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