A great dictionary, a tale of insanity

August 09, 1998|By Judith Schlesinger | Judith Schlesinger,Special to the sun

"The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary," by Simon Winchester. HarperCollins. 160 pages. $20. Robin Williams would be perfect as W.C. Minor, the brilliant, mad, gentle, white- bearded scholar/murderer, tormented by his "prodigious sexual appetite" and phantom nocturnal visitors who operate on his heart and feed him metal biscuits.

A Yale doctor and self-schooled linguist, William Chester Minor was a major contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.), a monumental achievement that required 70 years, 12 volumes and 178 miles of handset type to produce what remains the definitive record of the English language.

Minor is unhinged by his Civil War service and transferred to the future St. Elizabeth's Hospital (home to Ezra Pound and John Hinckley). Honorably discharged, he goes to England to "quiet his inflamed mind," but becomes increasingly paranoid and shoots a stranger he thought had been hiding under his bed.

Minor is committed "to safe custody until Her Majesty's Pleasure be known" in Broadmoor, the notorious institution for "certified criminal lunatics." Her Majesty's Pleasure - as well as his own escalating madness - kept him there for 38 years, 20 of them spent working on the O.E.D.

Fortunately, "The Professor and the Madman" is more than a garden-variety tale of genius gone awry. It is also the story of genius fulfilled, in James Augustus Henry Murray, the brilliant, Scottish-born shepherd of the O.E.D. (Liam Neeson? Sean Connery?), who was similarly white-bearded, fussy, curious, and a precocious linguist who tried to teach Latin to his family's cattle. Murray enlisted his 11 children to help compile the dictionary, building a 15-by-50-foot tin shed in his garden that he called the "Scriptorium." They were paid to work 30 minutes a day in the "Scrippy," but the O.E.D. was primarily assembled by volunteers, like Minor, who responded to the "adverts" for help.

The friendship between Murray and Minor unfolds within the chronicle of the book's lineage and creation. The O.E.D. was an astonishing enterprise in that pre-computer age, requiring more than 6 million definition "slips" (Minor alone contributed 10,000 in his tiny, perfect handwriting); every nuance of a word was required, with its first published appearance especially prized.

The idea was incubated in the quintessentially Victorian Philological Society, which held that "the spread of English throughout the world was divinely ordained." Among its members was Henry Liddell (father of the Alice who inspired Wonderland).

Murray was also friendly with Henry Sweet, whom George Bernard Shaw would immortalize as the "notoriously pigheaded, colossally rude phoenetician" Henry Higgins.

These minor characters are mentioned, rather than drawn, but they evoke the quirkiness of the age, as does the author's throwaway line: "The English placed the scatterbrain on a pedestal."

Minor sent his meticulous contributions from his comfortable book-lined suite at the Broadmoor, a fact that Murray initially overlooked because he was "too busy to think about it or who he might be." What Minor was, officially, was a "monomaniac," since there was no schizophrenia in 1872.

The author makes a thoughtful attempt to explain his madness, but as the jacket states, he's a "writer and adventurer." Besides, this is not a psychological autopsy - it's a fascinating little story, lively and well-paced, about two geniuses, a lost culture and an incomparable treasure of a book.

Judith Schlesinger is a psychotherapist who holds a doctorate in psychology. She is a professor at Pace University and author of a biography of Humphrey Bogart due in September from Metro Books.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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