The Professor and the Madman: The Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. By Simon Winchester. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1999. 256 pp. Cloth. $22.00.
At first, this may seem like a subject ill suited for a review in a theological journal. However, it is an interesting book dealing with both social and intellectual history and contributing significant insights into contextual and etymological studies. The author demonstrates a good grasp of the military, political, and medical aspects of the American Civil War and a working knowledge of nineteenth-century England from almost a Dickensian perspective. Winchester traces the lives of three key figures in this account. One key figure is, of course, James Murray, the man who was credited with the compilation of the first Oxford English Dictionary. As this character goes about acquiring entries for this new dictionary, he comes across a Dr. William C. Minor, who, over a long period of time, contributes over ten thousand entries. Intertwined with the story of Minor, there is the life of George Merritt, a seemingly insignificant person whose encounter with Dr. Minor changes both of their lives forever.
Although the story is captivating and enjoyable, the real contribution of the book lies in the description of the process of compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary [OED] (the first edition was published in 1927). In 1879, James Murray published an open invitation calling for readers to participate in the collection of material for the New English Dictionary (now known as the OED) by reading texts and submitting quotations that might be of assistance to the editors. Over the years, many thousands of people responded to his invitation and contributed to the remarkable process of preparing the OED.
The key to its success and value is in the “guiding principle,” which is the same principle that should be used by Bible scholars and theologians in the process of defining biblical terms in their context(s). Winchester affirms that the principle “that has set it [OED] apart from most other dictionaries…is its rigorous dependence on gathering quotations [contextual usages] from published or otherwise recorded uses of English and using them to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language” (p. 25).
He continues: “The reason behind this unusual and tremendously labor-intensive style of editing and compiling was both bold and complex. By gathering and publishing selected quotations, the dictionary could demonstrate the full range [this is key] of characteristics of each and every word with a great degree of precision. Quotations could show exactly how a word has been employed over the centuries; how it has undergone subtle changes of shades of meaning, or spelling, or pronunciation; and, perhaps most important of all, how and more exactly when each word slipped into the language in the first place…Only by finding and showing examples could a full range of a word’s possibilities be explored” (pp. 25-26).
What a unique perspective. Many of the NT “dictionaries” that exist today are generally compiled from a particular theological perspective and with a theological bias.
A case in point is the way in which most theologians interpret sōzō or sōtēria in the NT: whenever they see this word, they oversimplify and attach to it the meaning of “justification” or “receiving eternal life.” Yet, when one closely examines the contexts, one discovers that those words most (if not all) of the time would be better understood as “deliverance from” (a temporal concept) and not as “justification.”
It is clearly seen in Paul’s use of the word in Rom 10:9-10. After stating that “whosoever calls upon the Lord will be saved,” he proceeds with a qualification: one can only call upon whom one has already believed; thus, those who call upon the Lord are believers seeking deliverance from a present situation.
Winchester’s book gives the reader a glimpse of a very valuable linguistic process, as well as entertains him or her with an intriguing detective story. I have purposely left out of this review the plot and the story of how the book gets its title. I leave that to the reader to discover.
Stephen R. Lewis
President, Professor of Church History
Rocky Mountain Bible College & Seminary