Friday, September 12, 2014

The Professor and the Madman

Oxford English Dictionary—if you have never seen or known this dictionary, you might not have any idea of the heroic works to compile it centuries ago. Then you have probably never heard about Dr. James Murray or Dr. W.C. Minor. And it is unlikely for you to know that Oxford English Dictionary (OED) would have not been finished without the contribution of a madman who has committed a murder. Thanks to Simon Winchester, we could study the history of one of the most magnificent books ever published, as well as the dark tragedy of one of its contributors.

Winchester started this history with a visit of Dr. James Murray to a mysterious contributor of OED project he was currently leading. Dr. Murray was very surprised when knowing that the huge mansion he was visiting was actually the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum; where Dr. Minor has been a patient for more than twenty years. Winchester then brought us in a flashback to Victorian era, 1872, when a poor man was killed in the infamous slump area of London: Lambeth Marsh. The murderer turned out to be a professional surgeon, and also former army medical officer, named William Chester Minor. He was diagnosed with “delusional”—to soften the word “insanity”, and was submitted to Broadmoor asylum. It was assumed that the disorder began shortly after Minor had been forced to brand an officer with hot iron, and after witnessing a lot of violence during the war.

Simultaneously with the story of Minor’s earlier life until the symptoms of his brain disorder first appeared, Winchester took us to the literary world; particularly when the idea of publishing a compilation of English words as a source of reference, first appeared. It was in 1857, when Richard Chevenix Trench, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, first suggested that idea in a meeting of the Philological Society. However, it was not until 1879 that Dr. James Murray was appointed to lead the biggest project ever held in literary world, which was financed by Oxford University Press. The mechanism of this giant work was to read as many as English books, and to sort any English words from it, which have not been analyzed yet.

If you have not been familiar with OED, here is an example (taken from OED dot com). “The word of today" (when I am writing this review) happens to be: procerity, n.

click image to enlarge

So, in OED, each word in English has its biography. Each word, besides of its meaning, would be traced back: when it first appeared; in what books it appeared; in what context it was used; how it evolved from a word of other language, and so on. From the example above, you can imagine how many works required for just one entry. Many volunteers were needed to read books, took notes of the words, the sentences they were appeared, and the details of the books. To get volunteers, Dr. Murray spread invitations to the entire England; one of them accidentally arrived at the cell in 2nd block of Broadmoor Asylum, where Dr. Minor was resided. Dr. Minor later proved himself as one of the most influential contributors of OED; that he and Dr. Murray finally became good friends.

However, this book is fascinating for me not because of the history of OED making, but more than that, because Winchester challenged us to reflect upon the life of Dr. W.C. Minor; that in the making of so prestigious dictionary, the world seemed to have forgotten the passion and dedication of a madman behind the locked door of his ‘prison’. Later on Dr. Minor’s illness was known as schizophrenia. But at that time, no one seemed to know how to cure the illness other than confining the patient so that he won’t cause danger to society. It was so touching to follow Dr. Minor’s condition in his old age; he suffered from injustice and the lack of love and care, which severed his mental health. Dr. Minor stayed in the asylum for 38 years; he was freed from it in 1910; and after enjoying freedom for ten years, he died at 85.

This was a beautiful history that is written in beautiful prose. You would think you are reading a novel, not a history. Winchester went further than just providing us with history facts; he made us reflect on humanity; he moved us like any novel writers do. Thank you Mr. Simon Winchester, for bringing this story to us, and to monumentalize Dr. Minor’s great deeds for the literary world.

Five stars for The Professor and the Madman.


I read Indonesian translation from Serambi publishing

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