I think Winchester has spent too much time reading the Oxford English Dictionary (referred to as the OED from here on out), because he uses a lot of unfamiliar words. Seriously. I've been reading on the college level since long before college, and I do as much of the assigned reading as possible. My vocabulary isn't shabby. But Winchester throws in words like "louche" and "garroting" like everyone should know them.
louche: disreputable or sordid in a rakishly appealing way
garroting: present participle of "garrote," meaning to kill someone by strangulation, typically with a wire, cord, or iron collar
I've only read two chapters so far. The first begins with an excerpt of the OED's entry for "murder." It covers the incident that landed Dr. WC Minor in an asylum for the criminally insane. The second chapter has two epigraphs, excerpted from the entries for polymath ("A person of much or varied learning; one acquainted with various subjects of study") and philology ("Love of learning and literature; the study of literature, in a wide sense, including grammar, literary criticism and interpretation, the relation of literature and written records to history, etc.; literary or classical scholarship; polite learning"). This chapter focuses on Professor James Murray's life before his work as the lead editor of the OED. Murray didn't have much of a formal education, but he loved learning... to call him a "polymath" who learned for the sake of "philology" is an understatement. He was a nerd. The book doesn't say "nerd," of course. But in today's lingo, that's the best way to describe him. He knew Latin, of course. But he varied from fluent to familiar with all the Romance languages, as well as Dutch, Flemish, German, Danish. And he was quite capable in the realm of Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic as well. All that before he got higher education. If he lived 100 years later, I bet he'd be a Tolkien fan, fluent in Elvish and all derivatives, including the tongue of Mordor.
The second chapter also paused to recount the "protagonist" definition controversy. The OED said there could be multiple protagonists. In 1926, Fowler's Modern English Usage declared that "protagonist" could only be singular, and any instance of plural was absurd. The OED settled the matter over fifty years later, confirming that protagonist can, in fact, be pluralized. That's a relief, because The Professor and the Madman has two protagonists, as the title indicates.
I'm sensing that this author is a bit of a nerd, too. I'm a little out of my depth. It's like saying, "I'm a Naruto fan!" then meeting someone who knows a dozen jutsu hand signs and all the characters' names. Except with the English language.
This isn't as enjoyable as, say, a fantasy novel. But I still like it, and I'll keep puttering through it over the next week or two.
P.S.: I referenced the OED in two of last year's posts. I wrote about the origins of the words "geek" and "nerd." Thought it would be appropriate to link to those here, especially since they came from the homework assignment that introduced me to the OED.