|"THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN"|
October 20, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages writer
Simon Winchester, author of "The Professor and the Madman, the Making
of the Oxford English Dictionary."
| DAVID GERGEN: Simon, this is a tale about two men, but
let's talk first about the project that brought them together, the compilation
of the Oxford English Dictionary, a work you call the greatest effort
since the invention of printing.
SIMON WINCHESTER, Author, "The Professor and the Madman:" It's an amazing thing, the OED. In its original form it was 12 volumes -- 414,0000 words were defined. Nowadays it's 20 volumes, and they've added another 3 since 1989, which shows that English is unlike French and German, where the dictionary editors tried to say this is French and it will go no further. The English language - the editors of the OED decided - was a language which had to be shown to be a living language, constantly changing, constantly expanding. So when they began this process in 1857, the idea being to have a dictionary which encompassed every single word in the language -
DAVID GERGEN: First time ever.
SIMON WINCHESTER: First time ever - because things like Johnson's Dictionary, a hundred years before, only had 40,000 words, which was just scratching the surface. So they decided even tiny words like "that" and "to" and "but" and "if," they needed a definition, we needed to know how to spell them, we needed to know, you know, their orthography, their etymology, and to have quotations to show what they were. To do this was an incredible labor. They thought it would take 10 years and would maybe be four volumes. It turned out to be 70 years and it was 12 volumes. And they had, what, four -- five editors before it was all over, but the champion of them all was the man who is at the center of this book, this remarkable fellow, James Murray, who -
DAVID GERGEN: The professor.
SIMON WINCHESTER: The professor. Yes. Got to be distinguished because the two men, the professor and the madman, look almost identical - both long, flowing, white beards, and tall men, bald pates, separated by only three years, I think, but very, very different, because James Murray on one hand, the father of the dictionary, he was uneducated. I mean, he left school at 14. He came from very humble origins. He was the son of a linen draper in the Southern plains of Scotland. He worked in a bank, but he was astonishingly interested in language. I mean, right - when he was herding cattle, he tried to teach them to come to calls in Latin, so he was known locally as the boy who taught Latin to cattle.
DAVID GERGEN: I saw that in the book. Did he succeed?
SIMON WINCHESTER: Well, apparently, yes. I wish I could remember. I mean, obviously, he said, veni or vidi or vici or something to the cattle, and they would come, and he gave them all Latin names, and so on. And he wrote this incredible letter in 18 - well, when he was about 30 - to the British Museum applying for a job, and he said, quite matter of factly, "Well, of course, I speak all the Romance languages, French, Italian, Veaudoir, Provencal, Catalan - all the Teutonic languages - I speak Syrian, I can read the Bible in Hebrew, I know Phoenician," they did actually turn him down for the job, but the people at Oxford, who were preparing the dictionary, recognized that he was an extraordinary Philologist. He knew the language very well, and he was the ideal candidate to edit this massive dictionary.
DAVID GERGEN: And he edited a call then for volunteers, for people all over Britain to help.
SIMON WINCHESTER: That was what singled him out from anyone that had gone before him. He put out a little brochure in which he said what we need for this dictionary are thousands of quotations, millions of quotations, to show how every single word in the language - how it first appeared in the language - and then how it appeared over the centuries and evolved, how the words changed over the years. So this little brochure was distributed in bookstores and in libraries all over Britain, all over the United States, all over Canada, all over the English-speaking world. And people were asked to write in and start contributing. It was a very democratic effort, the OED, under the charge of Murray, but it involved thousands upon thousands of people.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, now this leads us to the tale along - because one of the people who wrote to him was Dr. William Minor, an American, and he started receiving quotations from Dr. Minor.
SIMON WINCHESTER: They came from a village only 40 miles away from Oxford, a place called Crowthorn in Barkshire; brilliantly researched, hundreds upon hundreds of quotations all on little three by five cards, the word, "art," the word "baksheesh," the word "caravan," scrupulously researched quotations with these words in them coming from a village 40 miles away. Every time at Oxford they completed a volume like A or B or C, they'd have a little party. Now, I was at Oxford, and I remember what Oxford parties were like. There were stale biscuits and indifferent sherry. But one can understand why Minor, who was sending all these quotations, consistently refused the invitations to come up and take part in the party. But then it began to rankle. People at Oxford said after 20 years or so, why is this man not coming up to Oxford? We want to congratulate him. He's done wonderful stuff. Finally, Dr. Murray decided he would go and visit Minor. So he sent him a telegram, can I come and visit? Minor replied, by all means, come on such and such train, and so the great editor went down by train, took about an hour, and there was a horse drawn carriage, clip-clopped off through the lanes of Barkshire, deposited him outside this extraordinary, rather forbidden-looking Victorian mansion, a servant took him upstairs to an important-looking man standing behind a desk, book-lined study, fireplace. Murray bowed and said, I'm the editor of the Oxford English dictionary, and you, sir, after 25 years must be my most assiduous help mate, Dr. W. C. Minor, and people who were there said there was a rather embarrassed pause - and then the man on the other side of the desk said, "I regret that this is not so. My name is Nicholson, and I'm actually the governor of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, which is the building you're standing in, and Dr. Minor is, indeed, here. But he's a lunatic; he's a murderer; and he's an American" -- each of those three words designed, I think, to shock - "I'll take you to him directly."
DAVID GERGEN: Wow! He - the good madman, Dr. Minor - was there because he had shot someone.
SIMON WINCHESTER: Yes. He was - he had been born in Salon of missionary parents. He had come from extremely good, rather aristocratic family in New Haven, in Connecticut. He had studied at Yale, became a surgeon - fought - not fought but did surgery in the Civil War, and during one of the fiercest battles, the Battle of the Wilderness in Orange County, Virginia, he was forced to brand the letter "D" on the cheek of a deserter, which is what the army officers were doing to humiliate deserters. And this apparently tipped him over into madness. And for the next five or six years he spiraled down within madness. His behavior - if you look at the army records - gets worse and worse. He's kicked out of the army finally. His parents think what to do with him, we'll send him to London, a rather more benign atmosphere. He's a painter. We have a letter of introduction to John Ruskin, who we know as a family. So they pack him off to London, but he's pathologically afraid of Irishmen, who he thinks are going to pursue him because he branded an Irishman; it was an Irish deserter. And one day coming back from a brothel - because he was terribly keen on sex - he heard footsteps behind him, world round, he took his American service revolver out, shot five times, killed this man - the first time there had ever been a shooting death on the streets of London, gave himself up to the police, was found "not guilty" by virtue of what was apparently his insanity, and sent for life to this newly-built lunatic asylum called Broadmoor.
DAVID GERGEN: And that's where he heard about the OED and began contributing to it?
SIMON WINCHESTER: Well, because he befriended the widow of the man he had murdered. She would go shopping for him and bring him books into his cell, and one day in the package of antiquarian books, he found - it's an amazing scene - with her, Eliza Merit, sitting on the end of his bed. He had a fireplace; he had books; he had his easel. He played a flute. The American ambassador sent him whiskey. He had a man servant. It was really not a bad life. And he was allowed to see women, or this one woman. She brought him his antiquarian books, and in it, in the package one day in early 1880, we think, was this brochure put out by James Murray calling for volunteers for the dictionary. And in a moment he must have sensed something like, Eureka, this is how I can redeem myself. And he immediately started working on the dictionary and never stopped for the next 30 years.
DAVID GERGEN: He apparently, Dr. Minor, suffered from schizophrenia, and you point out the irony, that if you were living today, the outcome might have been very different.
SIMON WINCHESTER: He would have been, if he was living today, he would have been given psychotropic drugs or Lagactil or Thorazine, sedatives, which would have dulled his madness, but they also would have dulled his genius. And there's no doubt about it at all - that had he been given the kind of medicine that schizophrenics are given today, he never would have produced what - his legacy now - he's the greatest of all contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary - that never would have happened.
DAVID GERGEN: Simon Winchester, thank you.
SIMON WINCHESTER: Thank you.