Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Professor and the Madman

When my wife and I go on a longer drive we often purchase an Audible book for the ride.  This time, for a trip to a wedding in San Luis Obispo, we chose Simon Winchester's "The Professor and the Madman" - read by its author.  This is not a new book but one recommended by our Priest.
I've always been fascinated by the Oxford English Dictionary.   It was an odd project when it was first proposed (in the time of Queen Victoria) and unlike some of the other language dictionaries, which often rely on a panel of experts to determine meaning and background of words, the OED relies on a small group of professionals and a larger group of volunteers who go through both common and obscure texts to discover the meaning of words and to find out when those words came into the language.   English, more than many other languages takes phrases and words from many locations and languages.  In the beginning the researchers took a slip, like above, and wrote the word and then offered a quotation properly footnoted.   That in turn would eventually result in an entry for the OED which looks like this (for the word fascinating) - which
includes a couple of quotations plus the proper spelling and pronunciation of the word as well as a couple of historical references.   The process now is done with computers and a lot of cross referencing and use of databases - but in the time when the project got started in the late Nineteenth Century - all of this was done by hand.   When the current edition came out its leadership said this was the last version that would offer a print edition.

The project was originally able to go forward as  a result of two additions - one a Brit - James Murray who assumed leadership about twenty years after the project had first been proposed.  But the second was a former American Army Captain who was quite mad and confined to a British Asylum.  He had been a physician in the Civil War for the Union and ultimately after his mental state began to decline wound up in London where he shot a man and was judged to be criminally insane.  He spent the rest of his life in asylums but made prodigious contributions to the project and devised a novel way to catalogue words which turns out was much more efficient than had been used before the doctor discovered it.  In the end the two men had a collaboration that lasted decades.  One odd fact was that near the end of their lives they even looked a bit alike - the picture above is of Minor.  The book is interesting but the Audible book also includes a lengthy interview with a current researcher on the OED about how they do their work now.   All in all this was a superb and interesting way to spend the drive down and back.

No comments: