Alarming annals of cinematic lexicography

Lexicographers’ eyes are rolling at the prospect of a movie about the Oxford English Dictionary with Mel Gibson in the role of the dictionary’s editor and Sean Penn as an early contributor to the project. The story from Rolling Stone yesterday, “Mel Gibson, Sean Penn Slated to Star in ‘The Professor and the Madman’: Oxford English Dictionary creation story heads to the big screen”:

Mel Gibson and Sean Penn may act together for the first time in a forthcoming adaptation of The Professor and the Madman, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The book, written by Simon Winchester, tells the origin story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Gibson is a longtime fan of Winchester’s tale: he acquired the rights to the bestseller in 1998, the same year it was first published in the U.K.

Gibson is slated to portray Professor James Murray, who oversaw the creation of the O.E.D. starting in 1857. The Hollywood Reporter suggests that Penn is “in negotiations” to appear opposite Gibson in the role of Dr. W. C. Minor, an important early contributor to the dictionary. Minor has a colorful backstory: a former surgeon in the U.S. army, he was locked up in an insane asylum during the period when he furnished Murray with more than 10,000 dictionary entries.

The screenplay for The Professor and the Madman was written by Farhad Safinia, who will also direct the film. Safinia has worked with Gibson before: the two co-wrote Apocalypto, which hit screens in 2006.

The story came to me first on ADS-L, where Ben Zimmer, appalled, quoted a piece from the Guardian yesterday, beginning:

Mel Gibson and Sean Penn to play creators of Oxford English Dictionary

Based on the bestselling novel, Professor and the Madman will star the Oscar-winners as two obsessive men who worked together in the 19th century.

This report has two features worthy of comment: the bizarre idea of action-adventure hero Mel Gibson playing the deeply scholarly lexicographer James Murray (the enormously versatile actor Sean Penn as W. C. Minor is not such a stretch); and the use of novel to refer to Winchester’s non-fiction book.

Novels. The English noun novel has a long-standing non-standard use for something close to ‘book’ (specifically, ‘long prose work’), or perhaps for ‘narrative book’ (covering biographies, autobiographies, and narrations of events, like Barbara Tuchman’s books and Simon Winchester’s as well — but not other expositions, like those on criticism, science, or technology). In any case, Jon Lighter on ADS-L reported having noticed this semantic extension of novel ‘long fictional prose narrative’ (in the terms of OED3 (Dec. 2003)) in the mid-80s, and he’s been complaining about it ever since.

The history of the usage has, so far as I know, not been explored, but there would be a natural prgression from ‘long fictional prose narrative’ to ‘long prose narrative, narrative book’ (uniting novels and true stories), a category for which English has no simple expression. Then, just as narrative itself has been extended from reference to a sequence of events to cover a sequence of facts or suppositions (that is, an exposition), novel can be extended in a similar way, to cover ‘long prose exposition’, a category that approaches ‘book’ but is more specific than the referent of book (and, again, corresponds to no simple English expression) — more specific in that it doesn’t cover books that are compendia of information, not arranged as expositions: for instance, the Merck Manual, Jane’s Fighting Ships, Who’s Who, field guides (to birds, wildflowers, and the like), dictionaries of all sorts, encyclopedias, grammars, usage manuals, hymn books, collections of comics, joke books, books reproducing the work of artists or photographers, and much much more.

On to the OED. The main players in Winchester’s story, from Wikipedia (with some important subsidiary detail, in the case of Murray:

Sir James Augustus Henry Murray (7 February 1837 – 26 July 1915) was a Scottish lexicographer and philologist. He was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from 1879 until his death.

… In preparation for the work ahead, Murray [in 1879] built a corrugated-iron shed in the grounds of Mill Hill School [in London, where Murray was teaching], called the Scriptorium, to house his small team of assistants as well as the flood of slips (bearing quotations illustrating the use of words to be defined in the dictionary) which started to flow in as a result of his appeal. As work continued on the early part of the dictionary, Murray gave up his job as a teacher and became a full-time lexicographer.

In the summer of 1884, Murray and his family moved to a large house on the Banbury Road in north Oxford. Murray had a second Scriptorium built in its back garden, a larger building than the first, with more storage space for the ever-increasing number of slips being sent to Murray and his team. Anything addressed to ‘Mr Murray, Oxford’ would always find its way to him, and such was the volume of post sent by Murray and his team that the Post Office erected a special post box outside Murray’s house. (link)

Here’s the photo of Murray (late in life) in his Oxford Scriptorium that the Oxford University Press often uses in its releases about the OED:

William Chester Minor, also known as W. C. Minor (June 1834 – March 26, 1920) was an American army surgeon and one of the largest contributors of quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary. He was held in a lunatic asylum for murder at the time. (link)

Murray and Minor were in their 40s when they began their great academic adventure (Gibson is 60, Penn 56; but then movies don’t have to provide accurate portrayals of real-life people). Of course, that great academic adventure was singularly lacking in hand-to-hand combat, car chases, flaming confrontations, death-dealing gadgetry, and the other thrilling ingredients of action-adventure movies. I suppose there could be wild revels on, say, the completion of the letter S, or the resolution of the –ise/-ize matter,  though in fact Murray wasn’t given to revels; he was devoted to his lexicographic labors and to his family, all eleven of his children serving as assistants in the preparation of the dictionary. This is not cinematic gold, unless Gibson proposes to pitch the story like Cheaper by the Dozen.

An assortment of books on Murray and the dictionary, alphabetically by author; some are scholarly, some more aimed at a literate-popular audience:

Charlotte Brewer, 2007, Treasure-house of the Language: The Living OED

Lynda Mugglestone (ed.), 2000, Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the Untrodden Forest

Lynda Mugglestone, 2005, Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary

Ammon Shea, 2008, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year

John Willinsky, 1994, Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED

Simon Winchester,  1998, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

As for casting the role of James Murray in the movie, well, Gibson bought the rights so he can keep the part for himself if he wants to, but I’d suggest Whoopi Goldberg or Eddie Murphy in the lead; the world needs more earthy lexicographic comedy. And if he decides to go for a musical version and pull in the youth market, he should certainly tap Justin Bieber for the part of W.C. Minor. Gibson has selected a director for the film, but, gosh,  John Waters would be brilliant.

This posting is dedicated to Jesse Sheidlower, whose birthday is tomorrow.

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