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

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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. b.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...
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