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The Surgeon of Crowthorne (Book Review)

The Professor & the Madman

Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words was also published in the United States and Canada as The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the little known story of Sir James Murray, editor of what would later be the Oxford English Dictionary, in his dealings with the most prolific of the amateur philologists, Dr W. C. Minor. The illusive minor refused meetings with Murray until after 20 years of missed opportunities the editor made his way to the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire to meet this amazing man. He found Minor, a retired U.S. Army Surgeon convicted of murder, at the address given: Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Not as the institution’s governor; Minor was an inmate. The year of their meeting was the Autumn of 1896.

The challenge of the Oxford English Dictionary is covered in Simon Winchester’s broader work titled The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. It seemed an insurmountable challenge of the day. Imagine a time before distributed computing environments where thousands of amateur philologists of varying skill and commitment are called upon to cover the entire English language in a single all encompassing body of work. It would become the first real dictionary as we define the term. Each word needed example quotations of each usage of the word for definition and each word required an earliest example. And all the books needed to be read with close attention to every word. A dictionary is far more than a list of simple definitions. Each volunteer had to read volume after volume of obscure and common texts to record all the words. And the finished Oxford English Dictionary had to be constructed to the highest qualification for publication to assert authority as a legitimate and reliable source of the English tongue.

It was in this context that the criminally insane Dr W. C. Minor read, made notation and contributed ideas to Murray’s lexicographic project from two rooms at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Minor had wealth, the access to a library of obscure books, the refined skill, the obsessive inclination and an endless amount of time on his hands. It’s no wonder that he became the most prolific contributor. But he was also an incredibly complex character. Seriously, this was a well written book that I’d recommend to a World of pedants and anyone interested in history or language.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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