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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Dictionary: Coming Soon to a Movie Theatre Near You

Quiz: which of these two men edited the original Oxford English Dictionary?


News broke this week that Simon Winchester's book about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary will indeed be made into a movie starring Mel Gibson as James Murray and Sean Penn as William Minor. Already  the media are getting the facts wrong, with The Guardian calling the two men "creators" of the dictionary and saying that Minor contributed "10,000 entries" (when he in fact supplied 10,000 quotations to support entries).

So, knowing that Hollywood will take even more liberties with the truth, I think it's time to reprint the review I wrote for The Globe and Mail when the book first came out in 1998.

The Professor and the Madman
A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Simon Winchester

HarperCollins,  240 pp., illustrated,
ISBN 0-06-017596-6, $29.00 Cdn

Of all the fates that could befall a dictionary project, surely being "made into a major film by Luc Bresson, in probable association with Mel Gibson" is the most unlikely.  

Yet this destiny is said to await The Professor and the Madman, the "central figure" of which, claims its author, is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). But, as the lurid title suggests, the OED really takes only a secondary place to the sensational aspects of an admittedly unusual tale - the true story of William Minor, an American surgeon who, though confined to a British insane asylum for murdering a total stranger, was one of the army of volunteers across Victorian England who read their way through centuries of literature to supply the quotations on which the dictionary's editors based their historical analysis of English.

Indeed, it is one of the strengths of this book that it will, by its very sensationalism, attract and inform readers who might never normally lay down cold hard cash for what Winchester calls the "fascinating story of the history of English lexicography", which he surveys in a highly readable, entertaining and informative fashion, though he amazingly fails to mention Noah Webster altogether.

The story of the OED in particular, with its colourful characters and astounding achievements, is one that deserves retelling in a popularly accessible form, though sometimes Winchester's desire to be entertaining and to bring the characters to life creates distortions. Frederick Furnivall, a man of great scholarly accomplishments, comes across as a mere eccentric who spent all his time sculling with buxom teashop waitresses.  Henry Bradley, who edited over one-third of the OED's entries but perhaps had the misfortune to be boring, is mentioned only once in passing.  

In fact, Winchester is so lost in his (admittedly understandable) admiration of his principal subject, Minor, and James Murray, the dictionary's chief editor, that he calls the OED "the creation of [their] combined scholarship", a vast exaggeration.

Indeed, he lapses into hyperbole more than once, saying that Murray has achieved the status of a "mythic hero", for instance. In his assessment of Minor's contribution, he diminishes that of other readers (one of whom submitted an astounding 165,000 quotations) who would "simply read their assigned books, note down interesting quotations on their slips of paper as they came across them and send them off in bundles." This process, in fact - and there is nothing simple about it - is exactly what Murray asked for, but Winchester is overly laudatory in recounting that Minor chose not to do this, creating instead a kind of concordance to his books and sending off quotations only in response to editors' requests for more evidence for specific words.  But if the other readers had not completed the monumental task of writing out slips and sending them in before editing started, the lexicographers would not have known where to start, or which words required more evidence that Minor could perhaps supply.  If everyone had adopted Minor's method, the OED would never have been completed.

Winchester has clearly researched his  material thoroughly, so thoroughly in fact that he not infrequently succumbs to the temptation to recount every detail he has discovered whether or not it is relevant and necessary. Digressions are many, the most staggeringly irrelevant being a comment on Rex Harrison's "pig-headedness" in a sentence about the phonetician Henry Sweet.  

Because the author obviously (and commendably) wanted this to be a popular history  uncluttered by such minutiae as footnotes, it is difficult to know when his historical reconstructions (which are very vivid, as in the case of his description of gruesome Civil War battles and the branding of a deserter which was said to cause Minor's madness) are a matter of record, and when they tip over into the realm of imagination and speculation.  Some of his speculations, indeed, are a little difficult to stomach, such as his oft-repeated theory that the sight of young Ceylonese girls cavorting in the surf (described in rather too loving detail for my taste) and the fact that Minor did not satisfy his sexual impulses at the age of 14 were what really caused him to lose control of his reason.

To those who know little of lexicography, this book is an entertaining,though not wholly reliable, introduction to the subject, particularly enlightening for those who labour under the delusion that the OED's role is to prescribe what is "proper" and "improper" English.  It vividly evokes diverse aspects of 19th-century life that one would not expect to find united in one book: the seedy underbelly of Victorian London, the
horrors of the American Civil War, life in an asylum, and the mobilization of almost 1000 volunteers to contribute to a monumental description of the English language.  In its careful reconstruction of William Minor's life, it is a testament to the ability of a person with a severe mental illness to contribute meaningfully to society. 

And, as the lexicographers in Oxford grapple with a total revision and updating of the great dictionary, it renews our awe and admiration for the OED itself, for those who undertook the daunting task in the first place, and for those who carry on the work into the twenty-first century.

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.