Books: The Professor And The Madman

Simon Winchester

Lexicography is not always--or only--harmless drudgery. The professor of this title was the renowned autodidact James Murray, who in 1878 began editing what was to become the towering, literally definitive Oxford English Dictionary. The madman was William Minor, an American surgeon and Civil War veteran living in England.

A volunteer contributor, Minor provided Murray with more than 10,000 meticulously wrought citations culled from his vast library. He was also a sexually repressed paranoid schizophrenic and murderer who at 38 had been confined for life to a lunatic asylum. At 68, Minor, consumed with self-disgust, amputated his penis. He died in 1920...

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