Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester

This is a biography of two men and a book: James Murray, W. C. Minor, and the Oxford English Dictionary. The Dictionary was the first project that set out to record every single word in the English language; the first edition took 70 years to complete, 414,825 words were defined, and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations were included. This isn’t the dictionary that sits on your desk! Murray was the third editor of this massive undertaking, but the one that made the project successful. Minor was the most prolific contributor, as well as a convicted murderer committed to an asylum. The tale of how this unlikely partnership came to be is fairly interesting, but it seemed much too long to me. I suppose it is appropriate for a story about a dictionary to be wordy, though! The author also makes liberal use of his thesaurus—words like trawl, portmanteau, and japanned appear on nearly each page. In most narratives this would come off as pretentious at best, but in this study of syntax it works.

At the close, the author presents some of his favorite words. I’ll take this opportunity to do the same! From

ob·strep·er·ous (b-strpr-s, b-) adj.

  1. Noisily and stubbornly defiant.
  2. Aggressively boisterous.

zy·mur·gy (zmûrjn.

The branch of chemistry that deals with fermentation processes, as in brewing.

jux·ta·pose (jkst-pztr.v.

To place side by side, especially for comparison or contrast.

ox·y·mo·ron (ks-môrn, -mr-) n.

A rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, as in a deafening silence and a mournful optimist.

First Sentence:
In Victorian London, even in a place as louche and notoriously crime-ridden as Lambeth Marsh, the sound of gunshots was a rare event indeed.

No comments:

Search This Blog