Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

Another recommendation by (soon to be Dr.) KMK. As a fellow Word Worm, she gets my geekish infatuation with the OED and tales of a lexical nature.

The Professor and the Madman tells the tale of an unlikely friendship between an Oxford lexographer who is the leader of the efforts to build the first version of the Oxford English Dictionary, and an American Civil War veteran who is his greatest help, despite being confined to a lunatic asylum for being, um, crazy. The creation of the OED alone is a fascinating story, involving, as you might imagine, nearly seven decades and hundreds of thousands of word citations and sources. As the definitive compendium of English language usage, the OED is much more than just a dictionary; it’s a fantastically ambitious scholarly undertaking which comprised the life-work of many of its contributors.

The book is short and peppered with OED excerpts for various relevant words. It’s also, paradoxically a bit too long, as it becomes frequently repetitive, and often delves into detail that is so beyond irrlevent as to not even serve to provide texture. It seems clear that the core notion was a good one, the tale itself interesting, but that most everything can be said in about thirty pages.

Overall, this is a fun pop-history of the founding of the OED, and a compassionate look into the lives of two men who were deeply involved in its creation.

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