The Professor and the Mad Man by Simon Winchester Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

The Professor and the Madman; A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester; HarperCollins, 1999.  242 pages; $15.99 (paperback); reading level:  adult.

In 1634, the French established the Académie Française to catalogue, and keep a watchful eye on, their language.  It wasn’t until 1857 that Richard Chenevix Trench, in a speech at the London Library, proposed the idea of an English dictionary, containing every word in the language along with the “biography” of each of those words, from the moment of its birth (i.e. its first appearance in print) to its current usage.  The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary took 70 years and employed an army of volunteers who combed through mountains of books, sending their findings to the Dictionary’s editor. Simon Winchester’s account of all this, however, doesn’t begin with such dry stuff. It begins instead with a murder, committed by a man declared legally insane, and with the amazing, twisted path that led that murderer to become friends with the dictionary’s editor and his most prized contributor of words.  Winchester writes in the engaging style of a journalist, making for high drama and, aside from a few digressions, quickly-turning pages. I missed footnotes and something more precise than a narrative bibliography, but the book is a treasure trove of details I never knew and the sheer strangeness of the tale made it well worth the read.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

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