Book Review -- By: Anonymous

Journal: Chafer Theological Seminary Journal
Volume: CTSJ 08:2 (Apr 2002)
Article: Book Review
Author: Anonymous

Book Review

The Professor and the Madman: The Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester (New York: HarperCollins, 1998; paperback, New York: HarperPerennial, 1999). 242 pages. Hardback, $22.00; paperback, $13.00. Reviewed by Dr. Stephen R. Lewis, Academic Dean and Professor of Church History at Chafer Theological Seminary.

At first, backgrounds of the Oxford English Dictionary may seem like a subject ill-suited for a review in a theological journal. However, it offers a glimpse into the social and intellectual history of the English speaking world. It also contributes significant insights into contextual and etymological studies. The author demonstrates a good grasp of the military, political, and medical aspects of the American Civil War1 and a working knowledge of the nineteenth-century England from almost a Dickensonian perspective. Winchester’s account traces the lives of three key figures. One is, of course, James Murray, the man credited with compiling the first Oxford English Dictionary. As this character went about acquiring entries for this new dictionary, he came across a Dr. William C. Minor, who contributed over ten thousand entries over a long period of time. Intertwined with the story of Minor, there is the seemingly insignificant George Merritt, whose encounter with Dr. Minor changed 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 1928).2 The key to its success and value is in the “guiding principle,” which is the same principle that Bible scholars and theologians should use for 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.”3

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 w...

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