The Professor and the Madman: A Human Drama Behind a Dictionary (Director P.B. Shemran) (the true story of Oxford English Dictionary)

I wrote this article in Japanese and translated it into English using ChatGPT. I also used ChatGPT to create the English article title. I did my best to correct any translation mistakes, but please let me know if you find any errors. By the way, I did not use ChatGPT when writing the Japanese article. The entire article was written from scratch by me, Saikawa Goto.



Movies and books covered in this article

(Click This Image to Go Directly to the Amazon Prime Video Movie “The Professor and the Madman”: Image from

I will write an article about this movie/book

Three takeaways from this article

  1. All great people are supposed to have been “madmen” before accomplishing great deeds.
  2. Oxford University was once “defeated” in lexicography.
  3. Lexicography is not the “core” of this story by any means.

It’s surprising that an incredible human drama was hiding behind the modest existence of a “dictionary”.

Self-introduction article

Please refer to the self-introduction article above to learn about the person writing this article. Be sure to check out the Kindle book linked below as well.

Published Kindle books(Free on Kindle Unlimited)

“The genius Einstein: An easy-to-understand book about interesting science advances that is not too simple based on his life and discoveries: Theory of Relativity, Cosmology and Quantum Theory”

“Why is “lack of imagination” called “communication skills”?: Japanese-specific”negative” communication”

The quotes used in this article are based on notes taken at the movie theater from movies in Japanese and are not direct quotes from the foreign language original movies, even if they exist.

“Madmen” are the Ones Who Create New History

This Movie Features Two “Madmen”

This movie is based on a true story.

Knowing that, everyone would be surprised.

It is even more so when we learn that a “murderer” was involved in the creation of the world’s most prestigious dictionary.

In this movie, there are two “madmen”. One is the aforementioned “murderer”, who used to be an elite but due to a mental illness committed murder and is now in the “penitentiary”.

And the other “madman” is a “self-taught man without a bachelor’s degree”. Instead of studying at a university, he learned various languages through self-study and became a linguist.

Now, both the “murderer” and the “self-taught man without a bachelor’s degree” can be called “madman”. And when these two “madmen” “meet”, the world begins to move in a big way.

The interesting thing about this movie is that the interaction between these two “madmen” is not necessarily the core of the story, but let’s continue talking about the “madmen” for a little while longer, for now.

What did the Two “Madmen” Achieve?

At the time, Oxford University was “surrendering”. To what? It was “lexicography.” They were in a state of “hopeless defeat” in their pursuit to compile words that are constantly changing.

In other words, even if the entire organization of Oxford University fought against it, compiling an English dictionary was an impossible challenge.

And then, the two “madmen” appeared there.

They achieved the “lexicography” that Oxford University gave up on. Of course, many people cooperated besides these two, but it would not have been possible without their meeting.

And what I find most amazing is that an individual was able to accomplish what a large organization had given up on. The “self-taught man” worked as part of Oxford University, but he was not in a position to mobilize the organization’s resources, and he seemed to be working with a small team as seen in the movie.

Of course, there would have been various reasons for this. The movie doesn’t go into detail, but I think the lack of cohesion within the organization may have hindered the realization. However, it’s not likely the kind of story that can be easily overturned by individual effort alone.

Still, he accomplished it with passion, ideas, and madness.

Human Imagination is Infinite

The history of humanity can be said to be a history of “challenges that make the impossible possible”.

The Great Wall, Pyramids, the Apollo program that achieved a moon landing, the first reaching of Mount Everest and the North Pole, and the first human flight, which we now take for granted or seem to be taken for granted, would have been considered “madness” at that time. Of course, there were probably countless voices saying “it can’t be done” and “it’s impossible.”

However, those who held on to their beliefs and accomplished impossible feats without paying attention to such voices have made human history. They may be called “great men” after their success, but before that, they were all just “madmen.”

And I feel that we are increasingly living in an era where only “madmen” can become “great men.” In any era, there are always things that are “unexplored” or “ideas that no one has ever thought of,” but humanity has achieved incredible things at an incredible speed. Therefore, the remaining areas would be only those that are so outrageous that they may be thought of as “unbelievable to even consider doing.”

Walking into uncharted territory and persistently challenging oneself over a long period of time is becoming increasingly necessary to achieve anything considered a “great feat” today, in my opinion.

That’s why I was reminded while watching this movie that anyone who takes on a challenge should be a “madman”.

On the other hand, this shift in the world can also be seen as a paradise for those who don’t fit in with conventional norms.

I want people to accept unconventional ways of life. I want them to not punish people for living as themselves.

Some people intentionally jump into “madness,” while others are perceived as “madness” for only doing what they think is natural. Those who are seen as “madness” can face difficulties in life, but if they realize that only “madness” can achieve “great accomplishments,” they may be able to pursue a different path.

This story is about the struggles of those who can only live with “madness” and those who are conflicted about whether or not to accept them.

Content Introduction

The Scottish-born linguist Murray, the son of a tailor, was forced to quit school at the age of 14 due to his disadvantageous upbringing, but he taught himself languages from all over the world and became fluent in them. Now, he is delivering a passionate speech in front of the professors at Oxford University.

At the time, Oxford University had given up on lexicography, thinking it impossible. They realized that trying to define all the meanings of every English word, while tracing their historical changes, was an impossible task. However, the university, which thought lexicography was their mission, needed to think of a new approach, and decided to entrust Murray with the task.

Murray had a chance of success. He asked English speakers from around the world to send in words they wanted to see in the dictionary, along with quotes from books where those words appeared.

He thought that with the help of volunteers from around the world, he could somehow manage it, but just collecting and organizing words that start with “A,” tracking their changes in meaning, was a huge amount of work. Eventually, he was at a loss because he couldn’t see the end of it.

On the other hand, an American named Minor, who used to be a military doctor, is being held in a criminal psychiatric hospital. He was obsessed with the delusion that a man was coming to attack him. Then he mistakenly shot and killed a passerby, thinking the man was the attacker.

At first, he was treated like any other patient, but the situation changed after an accident occurred in the hospital. The hospital staff was seriously injured, but thanks to Minor’s appropriate treatment, the person’s life was saved. Since then, Minor has been given special treatment as the “benefactor who saved their fellow.”

One day, Minor received a Christmas present from hospital staff. It was a book, and inside he found a message asking for the help collecting words for lexicography. Inspired by the message, Minor started immersing himself in the task of sifting through various books in his hospital room to extract appropriate words and quotations.

Murray’s lexicography office, which had been at a standstill, regained its vitality when it received a huge list of words from Minor. His list was exactly what the lexicography office had been seeking to fill in the missing gaps. Finally, with Minor’s help, Murray was able to compile words starting with “A” and “B” and managed to get it published.

The two became friends through correspondence, but eventually it was revealed that a murderer was involved in the Oxford Dictionary, and Murray found himself in a difficult situation…

After 70 years of compilation, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was finally completed, containing 1.83 million quotations and 414,000 words across 12 volumes. Behind it was a tragic and love-filled story.


After reading the text up to this point, what kind of story did you think it was? You might have imagined it was a documentary about lexicography.

I watched this movie and cried, but it wasn’t because of the lexicography part. I was surprised because I didn’t expect it to be the kind of movie that would make me cry.

The most important person in this movie is Eliza, a widow whose husband was murdered by Minor. Thanks to her, the story of “lexicography,” which could have been dry and boring, becomes a tear-jerking film.

Eliza’s role in the story will not be discussed here in detail, but her presence indirectly has a strong impact on lexicography. The film skillfully blends the documentary and human drama parts, incorporating the difficult theme of “how to deal with unforgivable people.”

In this movie, we are also asked how to confront the fact that the person who sends an enormous list of words is the murderer. We must seriously consider this issue as well.

In Japan and around the world, situations where people are forever blamed for “past mistakes” can occur. Of course, I think that there are mistakes that should never be forgiven, and it is a complicated issue that cannot be easily concluded because it was involved how the perpetrator has faced their mistake.

However, I believe that “everyone who has made mistakes should be given a chance to start over.” I believe that even if they have committed unforgivable mistakes, they should be given a path to reintegrate into society, even if it is a thin and difficult one.

Certainly, Minor is a murderer. However, at the same time, he is also an essential figure for the world’s first lexicography. In other words, he possesses an incredible and unique talent that cannot be replicated by anyone else. I am never saying that we should overlook past mistakes if one has talent. Instead, I want to raise the issue that we should strive to evaluate the present while acknowledging past mistakes.

Everyone is not living alone. Everyone is supported by someone and supporting someone. Therefore, we should not judge someone only by their past mistakes. This movie made me realize that again.


From the trailer and synopsis, it may be difficult to grasp any information beyond “lexicography” and “involvement of a murderer”. However, this work actually delves deep into the complexity, karma, and despair of “humanity”, and I think it’s a piece that even those who are not interested in “lexicography” can enjoy.

I hope you can feel once again that “madness leads to greatness” through their tremendous struggles.

Published Kindle books(Free on Kindle Unlimited)

“The genius Einstein: An easy-to-understand book about interesting science advances that is not too simple based on his life and discoveries: Theory of Relativity, Cosmology and Quantum Theory”

“Why is “lack of imagination” called “communication skills”?: Japanese-specific”negative” communication”

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