Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman

I read Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman because it was mentioned approvingly in Amman Shea's Reading the OED and it intrigued me. The upshot is that one of the major contributors to the original Oxford English Dictionary, Dr. W.C. Minor, was a brilliant medical doctor who also happened to be a paranoid schizophrenic and was therefore locked up in an insane asylum in England for murder. The book is primarily his story.

It is a fun and easy read, and so I've put it on the side bar. And as I read, it began to dawn on me that the OED was very much like an old version of Wikipedia. I never gave dictionaries much thought before, but obviously constructing one is a massive job. So what the editor--James Murray at Oxford--did was to advertise for volunteers. You would learn what particular needs the editors had in terms of quoting words in context (especially finding the first written use of a word) and then send in slips of paper: "The more quotation slips that came in to the iron shed he had built in Mill Hill, the better: He assured readers that he had an ample supply of assistants to sort them, and that his floors had been especially strengthened to hold them" (p. 135).

So what we now see as a venerable institution was in fact the result of thousands of people sending in quotations that they believed best fit a word. Since it was all by mail, they were as anonymous as they wished to be--in fact, Murray did not know for years that one of his most prolific contributors was locked up, believed people entered his room at night through spaces in the floor, and eventually even castrated himself.

Not that the comparison should be taken too far, because unlike Wikipedia the OED did have an editor with the final say on everything. Yet there is something to be said for the collaborative nature of both projects, and how very large public interest and participation made them possible.


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