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The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Oxford English Dictionary Paperback – 3 Jun 1999
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Subtitled "A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words," this is a remarkable account of the life of W.C. Minor. Not a famous name, but a quite extraordinary man. Minor was an American Army surgeon and millionaire who contributed enormously by post to the first, epic edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) while hidden away in obscurity in Berkshire, England. As the author points out, the OED is the most important work of reference ever created, and, given the globalisation of the English language, is likely to remain so for centuries. But when in 1896 Sir James Murray, the formidable editor of the OED, at last travelled down to Berkshire to find this elusive lexicographer and thank him for all his work, he found Minor in Broadmoor: patient Number 742.
Minor was educated, gentlemanly, industrious, and a psychopathic killer, who had gunned down a man at random in the London streets because he believed his victim was an Irish terrorist after his blood.
Simon Winchester won't win any prizes for the elegance of his prose style, but he has dug up a strange and extraordinary life story and turned it into a compelling piece of historical detective work. He never really penetrates into the central mystery of Minor's madness, because no one can. The mystery remains, inviolable, and makes his tale all the more darkly compelling. --Christopher Hart
W.C. Minor was one of the keenest volunteers involved in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. What the OED's editor, James Murray didn't realise was that he was also a millionaire American Civil War surgeon turned lunatic, imprisoned in Broadmoor Asylum for murder.See all Product description
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Some reviewers have commented that the story set out in this book would be dismissed as fantasy if it masqueraded as fiction. That it is a true story makes it quite remarkable. This is a tale from Victorian England in a world of European competition, supreme British confidence and `great' men. Just as the Victorians transformed and tamed their physical surroundings with majestic bridges, overbearing edifices and engineering feats they sought to do the same in the realm of learning. The Oxford English Dictionary was one of the high points of this academic adventure, deserving of greater recognition and understanding.
Winchester's book is an entertaining narrative of the dictionary's difficult gestation, birth and development. It is largely told through two protagonists (having pondered within the debate between the OED and Fowler's English Grammar on whether it was even possible to have plural protagonists) - the OED's long serving and dedicated editor, James Murray, and one of his keenest volunteers, William Minor.
And it is in Minor's story that the book finds its central intrigue. The surgeon of Crowthorne was indeed a surgeon, graduating from Yale and serving as a doctor in the US army of the civil war. And he was a resident of the Berkshire village of Crowthorne. But rather than occupying a manorial pile or a quaint, donnish cottage W. C. Minor was committed to Broadmoor, the secure hospital, or asylum, for the criminally insane.
Winchester develops the story well, plunging into the pasts of the two men to discern both their intellectual powers and how they found themselves in very different, yet at times strangely similar, circumstances. This story is intriguing, a tale of genius, dedication, madness and monomania. But for me the real joy was the remaining central character, the dictionary itself. It is in the love of the words, of the precise, magisterial definitions and the history of dictionaries that Winchester's passion shines. He writes with a passionate verve that sees the enthusiasm leap from the page.
The pre-Oxford English Dictionary world of Samuel Johnson's dictionary, and a world of "anachronistic polysyllabic sesquipedalian", inkhorn terms designed to impress others is a ridiculous treat. The clergyman quoted writing from Lincolnshire begging for promotion as "sacerdotal dignity in my native country contiguate to me ... which your worshipful benignity could some inpenetrate for me" is a wonderful find.
If you find joy in the admittedly obsolete existence of abequitate, bubulcitate and comatrix (they mean, and I did have to look them up, to ride away, to cry like a cowherd and a joint womb) then I believe you will enjoy this book. A few annoying traits unfortunately dragged this great book from a full five star review. Winchester has a rather annoying tendency to repeat the facts he has mentioned in previous chapters. A couple of times I noticed the repetition of ideas that contradicts himself, and a couple of things, such as the wailing of Broadmoor sirens in the Victorian age - they were only operational from 1952, at points disappointed an otherwise fantastic read.
You get the history of the OED (which itself is incredible) and the history of previous dictionaries. I was transported back to Blackadder with the Samuel Johnson dictionary information although it seems that the throwing it on the fire was attributable to another dictionary author.
Entwined within the OED history is the story of Minor and Murray's relationship over the years which is delightful.
I enjoyed the book tremendously, if you like crosswords and are an anal retentive then you will understand all about the OED project. It has made me think that I would like to have a full set, so I looked on Wikipedia and saw that there was a 3rd edition in preparation....estimated to hit Amazon in 2037 (I'll be 78 that year) so perhaps I'll have to get a second edition instead, if the history of estimated dates of publication are anything to go by!
Hope it's got 'sausage' in it.
For anyone interested in the English language, the etymology of words, Victorian England, mental health or simply bizarre tales of the weird and the wonderful, this is for you.
It also makes for the perfect present, it's short enough not to be intimidating yet long enough to do the story justice.
The Surgeon of the title was one of the major contributors because he had the time and the resources, locked up as he was in an asylum for the duration after he'd murdered someone.
It's a fascinating tale of a project which often teetered on the brink of failure from the very start, yet kept being restarted because of its uniqueness. It is a fine tale, well told.
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