Dictionary: A book which explains usually in alphabetic order, the words of a language, giving for each word its typical spelling, an explanation of its meaning or meanings, and often other information, such as pronunciation, etymology, synonyms and illustrative examples.

The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the most thorough compendiums of the English language. As someone who loves language, I enjoy browsing the entries, tracing the usage of a word from its coinage to the present. Like all dictionaries, it is a resource that we tend to take for granted and don’t really think about how it was first put together. Simon Winchester tells the story of the creation of the OED, and it is stranger than any fiction.

The OED took 70 years to compile, and at the heart of it were two men: James Murray, the editor for 40 years, and Dr. W.C. Minor, one of the dictionary’s most prolific—and reliable—voluntary contributors with over 10,000 entries.

Over the 20 years that they corresponded, Murray often invited Minor to visit the offices of the OED, but Minor refused to leave his home in Crowthorne. Finally, with the dictionary almost half-completed, Murray decided to pay Minor a visit to thank him for his help and to make sure his work was recognized. He telegraphed ahead to announce his visit and was met at the station by a coach with a liveried coachman. He was driven to a forbidding red-brick mansion and ushered into a library, where an important-looking gentleman was waiting. Murray greeted the man as W.C. Minor but the man corrected him. “I am in fact the Governor of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Dr. Minor is most certainly here. But he is an inmate. He has been a patient here for more than twenty years.”

W.C. Minor was a surgeon in the army, who was arrested for shooting and killing a man. He came from an old and highly respected family in Connecticut and had a history of mental illness. John Murray, on the other hand, was the son of a tailor in the Scottish borders and a formidable scholar. Together, these two men laid the foundations of what was to become the greatest dictionary of the English language.

Winchester was given rare access to the files on W.C. Minor. The book is scattered with definitions from the OED, and book feels almost Victorian, both in the writing and the black and white illustrations. There are some wonderful touches, for example the description of Minor working. For him, contributing to the dictionary was almost a therapy, a way of holding on to his sanity. He would pick a book from his collection, and then index any word that he found interesting. You can imagine Minor working hard, oblivious to the spyhole to his cell opening and closing as the guards checked up on him, filling his prison desk with “quires of paper, containing a master list of indexed words”.

But it’s not just the two men who are central to this story—the dictionary is almost a character in its own right, with its “twelve tombstone-sized volumes”. Winchester goes into detail about what it took to put together the OED—the planning and the meticulous work. The Professor and the Madman is a fascinating story and one that’s well worth reading.