Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

An Analysis of The Professor and the Madman and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Smacholdt's picture

 An Analysis of The Professor and the Madman and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary


Before the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1927, one pamphleteer complained that, “We have neither Grammar nor Dictionary, neither Chart nor Compass, to guide us through the wide sea of Words” (Winchester 92). He was right that until that point, no comprehensive dictionary of the English language had been published. There was, of course, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, released in 1755, which was an unquestionable success, although it merely provided a snapshot of the language of the 18th century, rather than a history and explanation of the evolution of the English language, or a prediction of directions in which it could evolve in the future. This is the mastery of the Oxford English Dictionary, published on New Year’s Eve 1928. the Oxford English Dictionary took over seventy years to complete and yielded twelve massive volumes. Five supplements were subsequently completed, which were added into a new twenty-volume set.

The OED, as its name has been abbreviated, defines over half a million words, includes millions of characters and is unique because it incorporates not only definitions and etymology of each word, but also the linguistic history of each. The OED successfully shows each word’s, “subtle changes of shades of meaning, or spelling, or pronunciation…and when each word slipped into the language” (Winchester 26). The Oxford English Dictionary is for many reasons the incontestable cornerstone of the English language.

Author Simon Winchester does an excellent job in his book, The Professor and The Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, of portraying the details of the making of the OED. However, more than just a history of the dictionary, The Professor and The Madman is as its subtitle says, a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” The Professor and The Madman reads almost like a thriller crime novel. As Salon book reviewer, Charles Taylor points out,

If the initial sections of his tale have the appeal of a gaslight Victorian thriller, Winchester doesn't leave it at that. He's a superb historian because he's a superb storyteller. Nothing he includes here -- whether it's an examination of the section of London where Minor committed his crime, the genealogy of the two protagonists (usually the dullest part of any history or biography) or a brief history of the very notion of dictionaries -- feels like it's impeding his story. The strange richness of it all is enhanced by the flawless clarity of Winchester's prose. His Victorian style, far from being a pastiche or postmodernist game-playing, is his natural mode of expression.

Winchester successfully incorporates mystery, crime, murder, history, and even linguistics into his work all, as Taylor says, without interrupting the flow of his story. The book draws the reader in like a novel but includes all of the facts of a textbook in an interesting and informative way. While parts of the novel are undoubtedly added for narrative reasons, the hard facts are all correct and the story is interesting. The book would have been fascinating on its own, but it can tell us even more when examined in conjunction with the Oxford English Dictionary itself. Therefore, in this paper I will make a broad sweep of The Professor and the Madman, analyzing Winchester’s narrative devices and what they can tell us about the story of the OED. I will then turn to the OED itself and draw on specific examples to analyze how its unique structure allows its readers to get a full picture of the English language- what words mean, the intricate shades of meaning of every word, and how the dictionary presents the evolution of a word from its beginning, and predictions of how it may evolve in the future.


The Professor and The Madman:

The story of The Professor and The Madman begins with the human background story of the two protagonists, Doctor William Chester Minor and James Murray. Murray is described as a “precocious, serious little boy” who had an “impassioned thirst for all kinds of learning” (Winchester 33). He left school at fourteen and continued to accumulate knowledge at an astounding rate. Later in his life Murray became a member of the Council of Philological Society, subsequently giving up his bank job and returning to teaching at the Mill Hill School in London. He then published The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland, which would improve his standing in philological circles. Because of a friendship with Fredrick Furnivall, Murray was invited on April 26, 1878 to meet with the Delegates of the Oxford University Press. He would later become the editor of the project. The dictionary was expected to take ten years to complete and be just four volumes long. Little did they know that they had vastly underestimated both.

Murray’s technique for assembling the OED was simple enough. Furnivall sent out a request for readers who would pick a time period from which to read and extract words to define. Their choices were 1250-1526, 1526-1674, or 1674-1858 (what was then the present day). Furnivall felt that each distinct period represented different and important trends in language development (Winchester 108). The readers then had to pick a book to read, make word lists, and search for words that intersected with the dictionary term they were researching.

Each volunteer would then take a slip of paper, write at its top left-hand side the target word, and below, also on the left, the date of the details that followed: These were, in order, the title of the book, its volume and   page number, and then, below that, the full sentence that illustrated the use of the target word. It was a technique that has been undertaken by lexiconographers to the present day (Winchester 108).

Ultimately over six million slips of paper came in from volunteers. The estimate that the first volume dictionary would be available to the pubic within two years was wrong “by a factor of ten” (Winchester 109). “It was this kind of woefully naive underestimate- of work, of time, of money- that as first so hindered the dictionary’s advance. No one had a clue what they were up against: They were marching blindly- folded through molasses” (Winchester 109). Winchester points out that defining words “is a fine and peculiar craft” (151). The rules are that a word must first be defined based on the class of things to which it belongs (animal, for instance) and then differentiated (cat, elephant). There cannot be any words in the definition more complicated than the word being defined. The definition has to say what something is rather than what it is not. If a word included multiple meanings, they all had to be stated. Also, all the words used in the definition must be located somewhere else in the dictionary. “If the definer contrives to follow all these rules, stirs into the mix an ever-present need for concision and elegance- and if he or she is true to the task, a proper definition will probably result” (Winchester 151).

Doctor Minor had a strategy that set him apart from the other volunteers. After he finished writing his first word list for one book, he would take down another from a shelf and write a new word list for that book. It might take him three months to complete one book, but his attention to details was impeccable. He would sort and index reams of paper worth of words from his eclectic personal library.

Though William Chester Minor was of a similar age as James Murray, his story could not have been more different. Minor was born to missionary parents on of the Island of Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka). He was educated as a physician at Yale, then serving traumatizing service in the American army during the Civil War. Winchester describes in detail how Minor was forced to brand the face of an Irish deserter (effectively ruining the man’s life as he would then be able to be immediately recognized in England as an Irish nationalist.) The event seems to have scarred Minor for life and possibly been the beginning of his unhinging (Winchester 67). He began to carry his revolver with him everywhere, as he was convinced that an Irish mugger might try to attack him. This paranoia led directly to the bloody murder of George Merrett described at the beginning of the book. Minor shot dead a man he had never met because he though that Merrett was trying to break into his house. This in turn lead to Minor’s internment in Broadmoore Criminal Lunatic Asylum until “Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known” (Winchester 21). 

The irony of this, as Winchester duly notes, is that if Doctor Minor had not become mentally ill, or if he had not killed George Merrett he would not have ended up at Broadmoore Criminal Lunatic Asylum and probably would not have submitted all of his dictionary entries. In addition, if he had been treated with modern medicines (nothing of the kind was available at the time) he might have been cured and been uninterested, or perhaps unable to complete all of the difficult and tedious work that he did for Murray and the rest of the OED committee. He might not have had the will or the time to submit the number of entries that he did. On this matter Winchester says, “He was mad, and for that, we have reason not to be glad. A truly savage irony, on which it is discomforting to dwell” (Winchester 214). This paradox is an important part of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. If Minor had not been mad the dictionary would have taken much longer to complete and may have looked much different. 

Winchester tells the story of the OED in a truly cleaver manner. The beginning of each chapter of the book includes the full definition of a word from the OED relating to that chapter. For instance, the word “lunatic” defined at the beginning of chapter 3 reads, “ Originally, affected with the kind of insanity that was supposed to have reoccurring periods dependent on the changes of the moon. In modern use, synonyms with insane; current in popular and legal use, but not now employed technically by physicians” (Winchester 43). This shows the differing uses and attitudes towards the word (as doctors now find it an inadequate label for patients). The word is also significant because chapter 3 goes on to discuss Doctor Minors’s childhood and ensuing insanity.

Winchester sometime uses definitions to trace the plot of the story line. For instance, on page 28 he introduces the controversy over the word “protagonist” and whether it can ever be used in the plural, implying that a narrative can have multiple protagonists. He says at the beginning of the section that the story of the OED does have two protagonists, and then goes on to trace the controversy behind it, beginning with the word’s etymology and explaining the debate behind the word. He also traces the evolution of words as new uses come into being. This is a cleaver way to incorporate OED definitions into a narrative about the writing of the OED. Winchester does a similar thing on page 18 where he notes, after the police commissioner of New Haven calls Minor “insane “ in his notebook, that this was the fist use of the word to describe Minor. The importance of language is highlighted in multiple ways throughout the book. Obviously the main subject of the book is the OED, but Winchester finds cleaver ways to weave the important of words and definitions into his prose as he develops the narrative.

Another tool that Winchester uses in his book is illustrations. Most informative books do not include illustrations, and hand-drawn ones at that, but the pictures included in The Professor and The Madman add an eye-catching element to the book. The pictures in the book are mostly of places (a London street, the driveway to Broadmoore Criminal Lunatic Asylum) although one depicts Minor writing at a desk and another shows the murder scene of George Merrett soon after the shooting occurred. The simplicity of the black and white sketched illustrations are not so distracting as to detract from the text, but provide pictorial support and something to look at along with the story.


The Oxford English Dictionary

The first of the many noteworthy things about the Oxford English Dictionary is how many editions exist today. Canady Library at Bryn Mawr College boasts numerous editions including but not limited to; The Shorter abridged Oxford English Dictionary (1933 and 1939 editions) both in two volumes, the 1955 Oxford Universal Dictionary, the 2002 edition of the Oxford English Reference Dictionary, The Oxford Modern English Dictionary (1992), The Oxford English Dictionary for the Business World (1993), The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (1990), The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary (1978), and The Oxford English Dictionary 2nd edition 20 volume 1989 edition. I will use the 2nd edition 20 volume 1989 edition for this portion of the paper.

The preface of the Second edition OED informs the reader that it combines the texts of the first (1933) edition, the supplements published thereafter, and words that have gained popular used since the publication of the supplement. The dictionary’s self-declared intention is to present the words that form the English language in addition to pronunciations, etymologies, histories, and all possible usages of each word (Simpson). For instance, the etymology of the word “fact” derives from the Latin word fact-um (thing done), and facere (to do). The word “fact” was first used in the 16th century and a version of the old French version survives with a sense of feat. The word “fact” has eight full definitions including “a thing done or performed”, “the making, doing, or performing [of something]”, “something that has really occurred or is actually the case”, “something that is alleged to be or conceivably might be a ‘fact’”, “that which is of the nature of fact”, and “[something] that finds out facts, esp. a committee commission, etc.” (Fact). Each definition and sub-definition has several quotations from various sources beginning when the word was first used up to the time when the dictionary was published. In this way, the word “fact” like all other words in the OED is a miniature history in itself. The Oxford English Dictionary is obviously a history of the English language but each word is also a history of one simple building block of the English language.

The OED preface goes on to say that, “Its basis is a collection of several millions of excerpts from literature of every period amassed by an army of readers and editorial staff” and that “It is generally recognized that the consistent pursuit of this method has worked a revolution in the art of lexicography” (Simpson). The preface also says that the dictionary is, “virtually an encyclopedic treasury of information about things” (Simpson). After the preface the dictionary includes an introduction with a guide for how to approach the reading of the dictionary, an explanation of new vocabulary and a short paragraph of statistics. This OED includes 290,500 main entries, 59 million words, 350 million characters, and 2,412,400 illustrated quotations (Simpson). This is a massively involved and complex work and its editors know it. It is incredible to think that the first edition was released before computers or complex printing technologies…

The second section at the beginning of the dictionary is a general explanation of the evolution of the English language. The explanation begins, “The vocabulary of a widely diffused and highly cultivated living language is not a fixed quantity circumscribed by definite limits” (Simpson). As our fall 2010 Non-Fictional prose class discussed, the very nature of language is to grow and change and it should be given space to do this. The editors of the OED fully acknowledge this important need, which truly sets it apart from other dictionaries. It also consents that the way it classifies words is by no means the only way to do so. Any kind of classification of language is a social construction and so should be flexible and changing. This explanation also includes a diagram visually illustrating how a word can branch out in numerous directions, starting from common, literary, and colloquial and moving towards scientific, technical, foreign, dialect, and slang. The sections also discusses the signification, or senses, of words which allow words to become flexible in their definitions and more directly linked to other words to show their past evolution and possible future evolution. The section goes on to elaborate on the importance of the quotations after each word to complete the meaning of that word. The quotations help to place the word in the correct historical time period as well as shed light on the specific way that it can be used.

The good thing about the Oxford English Dictionary is that unlike Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language the new and modern quotations for each word in the OED have been added in each subsequent edition in order to continue to trace the evolution of the word (Simpson xxix). For instance, the first quote in the OED for non-fiction is from 1909 and says, “In Capetown the percentage of non-fiction to the total number of volumes is 58.” The 1965 quote from Vogue says, “Truman Capote is an experimenter, an adventurer. His newest experiment is In Cold Blood, a unique book, for it is the first non-fictional novel, a precise documentary, in many ways brilliantly composed” (Non-fiction). These definitions discuss non-fiction as it becomes a more widely used classification. The OED quotes for “fiction” are much more numerous. The first quote exemplifying the definition, “the action of fashioning or imitating” dates back to 1607 and reads, “In some parts of Germany…it [the shrew] is called…Zissmuss, from the fiction of his voice” (Fiction). The final quotation, illustrating the definition, “to feign; to fictionalize; to admit of being fictionalized” is from 1966. “Yes, yes, yes, but why fiction it? Particularly because the fiction is weak” (Fiction). The definition for “fiction” takes up three quarters of a page by itself, while the definitions for “non-fiction” only take up a fraction. Because older words have been in existence longer, they include more shades of meaning illustrated by quotations than other, newer words do.

The definition of “false” also has an interesting history. The word itself covers nearly four pages and includes over twenty-five main definitions. It derives from many different languages including the Scottish “fause” and Old English “fals,” old French “fals, and faus,” Spanish “falso,” Dutch “valsch” and late Icelandic “falskr.” The description says, “

The etymological sense of the Latin falsus is ‘derived, mistaken’ (of persons), ‘erroneous’ (of opinions.) In modern English the sense ‘mendacious’ is so prominent that the word must often be avoided as discourteous contexts where the etymological in other languages or in Romanic would be quite unobjectionable. Some of the uses are adopted from French and represent senses that never became English (False).

The word has evolved from its first use in the 1200’s to the modern day. Chaucer uses it to define “ erroneous, false” in 1384 by saying, “Were the dying soothe or fals” (False). By 1830 the quote for the definition “a position which compels a person to act or appear in a manner inconsistent with his real character or aims” says, “It [taking tithes in kind] places them [the clergy] in what the politicians call ‘ a false position’, with respect to the community at large” (False). Like all words in the OED “false has grown and changed with the evolution of the of the language.



The Oxford English Dictionary is a greatly useful tool to guide us through the “sea of words” that is the English language. Examining The Professor and The Madman in conjunction with the OED itself is a useful way for us to glean a better understanding of both works. In The Professor and The Madman author Simon Winchester presents a history of the OED illustrated by thought provoking definitions to show us the evolution of the English language as it parallels the evolution of the protagonists in the book. Reading The Professor and The Madman was an interesting way to get the back-story of the OED, a story I might not have ever known if I had not read the book. It was informative to learn about the strategic way that the Oxford English Dictionary was produced and then to look at the OED itself to see examples of what Winchester’s book said regarding the histories of certain words (for instance the argument over whether the word “protagonist” can be plural.)

Unlike Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English language, the OED provides its reader with not only pronunciations, etymologies, and possible usages of each word, but also a brief history to show how each word has evolved over time. This is a good way of demonstrating the narrative quality of language, how it is not fixed, and how it can grow and change over time .The OED is like a living museum of the English language, as it includes definitions and usages of words that are essentially obsolete in the English language today. However, the OED is not merely a graveyard for unused words, the fact that it keeps getting revised, changed and re-released demonstrates the liquid quality of language and how it can extend and change. The fact that the OED shows the “senses” of each word exhibits how the lexiconographers are aware of the fact that language is not a solid entity, but can be better described as a liquid, flowing into the spots of other words and mixing with existing ones to create new hybrid words.

Taken together, the Oxford English Dictionary and The Professor and The Madman paint a full picture of the process behind the making of the OED, the ways that language can grow and change, and how language is used today. Reading both at the same time was an interesting interdisciplinary study of history and linguistics, with an informative commentary on the malleability of the English language.


Works Cited

“Fact.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

“Fiction.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

“Non-Fiction.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

Simpson, J A, and E S.C Weiner. "Preface." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd

     ed. 1989.

Taylor, Charles. "The Professor and the Madman." 2000. 14

     Dec. 2010.

Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and

     the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins

     Publishers, 1998.