Posts tagged ‘language’

The Professor and the Madman-a book review

When was the last time you used a dictionary to look up a word?

Not online.

A hardbound or paperback book that you hold in your hands and in which you turn real paper pages.

Been a while?

It has for me.

Other than using Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, I keep three books on my desk:

  1. Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories by Wilfred Funk (yes, THE “Funk” of Funk and Wagnalls.)
  2. Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words by J.H. Byrne (a gift from a close friend)
  3. The Book of Hard Words – Read it, See it, Know it, Use it. by David Bramwell

What was the last murder mystery you read?

Would it live up to this description, “…the linguistic detective story of the decade?”  That’s how New York Times Magazine writer, William Safire described, The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester.

Did you ever wonder how, and by whom dictionaries were written?

The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the most famous of them all. For many, it is the gold standard. (It certainly is for lexicographers and members of the London Philological Society.) We would have never expected it to have been the product of mad dogs and Americans. Yes, an American madman played a significant role in creating the OED. These days, most Americans would define a madman as one who voted for the OTHER candidate.  Things were a bit different in 1871 London, and the States were still rebounding from their brush with being dis-united.oed

The story involves two protagonists eponymously referred to in the title. In a manner of speaking, there is also a third man–not Orson Welles’ Harry Lime.

Winchester treats readers to a sampling from the OED with a definition at the beginning of each chapter. The Preface is prefaced with the word, “mysterious,” and Chapter One begins with, “murder.”

And murder is where one of the two stories begins.

Dr. W. C. Minor was a battlefield surgeon (a Yankee)  in the War Between the States. As a result of his experiences in the war, he apparently suffered from what we know today as post traumatic stress disorder, a term likely not found in the first edition of the OED. In retrospect, researchers today speculate that his PTSD hastened, or perhaps even was responsible for a posthumous diagnosis of bipolar disorder. His untreated illness referred to in Victorian England as, “madness,” combined with a deep seated racism for the Irish. It eventually led to his choice of victims and the perpetuation of a crime that would result in his availability to volunteer an unlimited amount of his time to the research required to help write a literary masterpiece.

murray

James Murray at work on the OED

 

James Murray was a Scot who, by the time he was thirty, in 1867, had learned twenty-two languages in addition to English. Despite a stellar resume, he was turned down for a much coveted job in a British museum. Eventually, he was chosen by the committee at Oxford to lead the project that would take seventy years  and define over a half million words. The first edition consisted of twelve tombstone-sized volumes.

A rigorous dependence on gathering quotations to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language sets the OED apart from most other dictionaries. The previously mentioned definition of the word, murder, consumes more than two pages in the paperback edition of The Professor and the Madman. It seemed a monumental if not impossible task requiring an unbelievable number of hours which were supplied by volunteers. Who better to volunteer than an incarcerated word savant who was also a prolific reader?

Murray soon became buried under thousands of handwritten notes from Dr. Minor (by far the most prolific contributor) and hundreds of other volunteers. As the timelines of Murray and Minor converge, readers see their denouement as the dictionary is created while developing an appreciation for the men and their relationship. Winchester leaves us with the conclusion of their lives (not a Hollywood ending) and an appreciation for how their collaboration was essential  to the success of the project.

Casual readers will enjoy the story; writers and other word aficionados will feel this book is essential to have in their personal libraries.

Writing — as a second language?

“You see what I’m saying?”

“No, I hear what you are saying. I cannot see it.”

Does that conversation sound familiar?

Have you been tempted to respond that way when someone asks if you can see what they are saying?

Has an author ever given you a plot that you could see?

Have you ever told a story and your listeners responded favorably?

Ever notice how good the story was when you had good listeners?

The story got even better when the listeners were better.

Was their response so favorable, that you decided to put that same story into writing?

How long did it take to reduce a two minute story to print?

Whether you were writing longhand or typing, it’s highly likely that it took much longer to write the same story that previously was available only verbally.

Ever wonder why?

Donald Davis has.

He wondered so much about it he did lots of research.

His research focused on teaching non-writers how to write.

Just as Betty Edwards has shown that willing students can learn to draw (and draw well), Davis asserts that non-writers can be taught to become accomplished authors.

Here’s another conversation you’ve probably had:

 “Don’t ask Janice what time it is.”

 “Why not?” is the reply.

 “She’ll spend an hour telling you how the clock works and you’ll never find out the time.”

The trait of being a great storyteller doesn’t give you a free pass on becoming a great writer. In Writing as a Second Language, Davis details the five-step transition of the spoken word (stories) into print. He defines and reviews the development of language. In this case, to become better purveyors of the written word, practitioners are well-served by knowing how the clock works. It saves time.Image

Davis reveals the logic behind the title as he explains that writing, like learning a foreign language, is a skill the student learns.  Few of us are born “natural” writers. For the rest of us, we can rely on Davis’s five-step (thank God it isn’t twelve steps) plan to become a better writer.

No doubt, some writers have been employing Davis’s recommendations for years unconsciously.

Now we can all become better writers, on purpose.

“You hear what I’m writing?”

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