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The Professor and the Madman August 5, 2008

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Fun stuff, Random musings.

I recently finished reading The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, which is about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. I found the book to be quite fascinating. Imagine a time when there were no dictionaries. I’m not even sure I can. We take for granted that we can look up a word in a dictionary (or even plug “define:WORD” in Google) and have an instant answer.

Despite having been trained as a terminologist at Kent State University, I had also never really put much thought into what a daunting task compiling a dictionary was back in the late 19th century without the help of computers. We were taught to enter the words into a computer program (back then it was MTX now it is MultiTerm or some other program), which then compiled the words and alphabetized them for us. The folks at the OED compiled entries on slips of paper and published sections every few years.

It took Professor James Murray and his helpers 70 years to complete the dictionary with the help of hundreds of volunteer contributors. They distributed handbills through bookstores and libraries asking for volunteer readers to begin assembling word lists and quotations that illustrated the meaning of those words. The volunteers sent in slips of paper, which were then compiled into volumes. The project ended up encompassing 12 volumes. Professor Murray dedicated 40 years of his life to the project and did not live to see it completed. One contributor (and the most prolific) was an American, Dr. W.C. Minor, who had been committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum for murdering an innocent British brewery worker whom the deluded Minor believed was an assassin sent by his enemies. Dr. Minor was responsible for almost 10,000 words in the final dictionary and was a huge asset to the project.

This book is definitely worth reading if you have a love of languages. It will not disappoint. It has intrigue, lots of historical facts and stories, as well as the minutia involved in making a dictionary.



1. Sarah - August 5, 2008

I really enjoyed that book. If you’re a JRR Tolkien fan at all, The Ring of Words is a good one that traces both Tolkien’s work on the OED and the origins of the words he coined/repurposed in his fiction. It’s a lot of fun if you’re into Lord of the Rings and philology… which, come to think of it, is an incredibly specific kind of geekdom.

How does one become a terminologist? Is it considered a subset of linguistics? That kind of makes me want to move to Ohio. 🙂

2. jillsommer - August 5, 2008

I’ll have to check it out! I am a “recent” Tolkien convert. I have learned to appreciate his work in the last ten years.

After studying under Dr. Sue Ellen Wright at Kent State, I worked as a terminologist at Translingua in Germany for six months or so. I basically took existing translations and source texts and compiled glossaries from them.

Terminologist Career Description

It is the task of terminologists to collect and document technical terms, to do research on underlying concepts and provide equivalents or create new terms for concepts that as yet have not been named, for the benefit of the users of terminology.

The careers of terminologists are exceptionally challenging. Young people considering to join this profession can be assured that they will work at the forefront of language development in South Africa. Apart from facilitating scientific and technical communications at various levels, in different subject fields, the career offers the practitioners in this field excellent opportunities of enhancing their general knowledge, but also of sharpening their command of languages as well as their skills of creative writing, project management and interpersonal communication.

The activities of terminologists are diverse and include the following:

» Collecting, systematizing and documenting terms in a particular technical field or fields.

» Verifying terms in order to establish their linguistic and technical accuracy (in this process terminologists collaborate with experts and other authorities).

» Providing equivalents as well as creating terms in the target language.

» Editing (and accurately proof-reading) as well as revising and updating terminology.

» Facilitating standardization of terminology in collaboration with subject specialists, as well as promoting the use of standardized terms.

» The compilation of glossaries or dictionaries (usually as part of a team) in order to make terminological data available to prospective users.

» Providing an information service, thereby rendering terminological and linguistic assistance and advice to the public.


What kind of personality do I need? Terminologists must have a good knowledge of at least two of the official languages. They must have an extensive general knowledge and have a wide field of interest and an eye for detail. Computer literacy is an important recommendation as terminologists do their work almost exclusively on computer. They must also be good organizers since they have to plan their projects thoroughly. They also need to be successful liaison officers, as they have to constantly collaborate with specialists, language practitioners and information scientists.

Where can I work?

The National Terminology Services of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology which is responsible for the publishing of term lists and dictionaries.

Can I work for myself in this occupation?

Terminologists can do private work for publishers and act as consultants for writers. They can also compile subject dictionaries. The opportunities for self-employment are currently still limited.

3. Sarah - August 7, 2008

Thank you! That’s very interesting indeed…

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