The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

Let’s start off by saying that this is a non-fiction book about how the Oxford English Dictionary was created. It is fascinating as far as I’m concerned (a friend of mine and my sister also agree.) It was such a grand undertaking and I for one appreciate the dedication of the people who helped create it. Just so we are all on the same page, the professor (James Murray) edited the dictionary and created rules on how it should be put together; the madman (Dr. W. C. Minor) was in an insane asylum and was instrumental in collecting thousands of words and meanings to be added.

Defining words properly is a fine and peculiar craft. There must be no words in the definition that are more complicated or less likely to be known than the word being defined. The definition must say what it is and what it is not. If there is a range of meanings of any one word- cow having a broad range of meanings and cower essentially having only one-then it must be stated. And all words in the definition must be found elsewhere in the dictionary—a reader must never happen upon a word in the dictionary that he or she cannot discover it elsewhere.

I have the OED app on my phone and I even used it to look up words from this book. Words like philology, orthography, and lexicology. I don’t want to go into too many details about the book because it’s much more fascinating to read it, and my post could never encompass all the cool facts that can be found in it. It was a surprisingly quick read for a book that is heavy with information. The author does a great job in taking you on a journey through the making of the dictionary.

PS There is also a movie but I haven’t watched it.

By gathering and publishing selected quotations, the dictionary could demonstrate the full range of characteristics of each and every word with a very great degree of precision. Quotations could show exactly how a word has been employed over the centuries; how it has undergone subtle changes of shades of meaning, or spelling, or pronunciation; and, perhaps most important of all when each word had slipped into the language in the first place.

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