Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Doing what God has fitted me for, by ‘Philologus’

I am a very lucky writer. For thirty-eight years I have been paid to write about the life histories of words. I love what I do.

I can’t choose what I write about: I work on the subjects I am given.

I don’t write much at length. Nearly everything is a short passage or snippet, or simply editing what others have written, some long ago, some recently.

I write as part of a very large team. Everything is collaborative; no one owns any part of what is published.

What we write is anonymous. Even if I discover something interesting and write it up, nothing is attributed to me.

The work is highly skilled. It requires considerable painstaking analysis, careful research, and clear, concise expression.

As part of my job I check the work of colleagues, amend it where necessary, and give feedback; and I answer questions about analysis and style.

Of course, occasionally the words involved are Christian ones, about which I know more than many of my colleagues. I have had pleasure writing up church, quiet time, and rapture, for example. But these only occur rarely.

All words are fascinating. A word may repel us because of what it refers to, or (perhaps even more) because of the way in which it refers. For example, slag is quite an appropriate word for the refuse of smelting. But applying it to a person carries with it a morally questionable attitude. However, this is a personal response, not a professional one. We are word scientists and historians. Just as a biologist studies a virus dispassionately without thought of the harm it does, so we present the story of every word without obtruding our ethical or aesthetic views.

So what is the distinctively Christian component of the writing?

Firstly, it is an excellent discipline to work within a framework in which you get no personal glory. You play your part in the team to the utmost of your ability.

Secondly, it is a privilege to help colleagues to be the best they can. I have learnt much about not looking down on others’ lack of knowledge or skill, being patient with their elementary, trivial, and unnecessary queries, identifying their good achievements and praising them, and trying to count others better than oneself.

Thirdly, language is a divine gift, and the study of the English language is a noble enterprise. Space forbids enumerating the providential steps which brought our present project into being, but I think our writing is for God’s purposes. I agree with my predecessor, Sir James Murray, a convinced Christian, who wrote:

‘I work on with a firm belief…that I am doing what God has fitted me for, & so made my duty; & a hope that He will strengthen me to see the end of it…But I am only an instrument, only the means that He has provided, & there is no credit due to me, except that of trying to do my duty; Deo soli gloria.’


  1. Fascinating post :) I like the part about being content to do the job because of your love of words rather than for personal glory. Perhaps more of us need to have that attitude...

  2. I found this fascinating too. This would be the job I'd want to do if I weren't an English teacher ... The pupils get fed up with me stopping the lesson and saying, 'Hang on. Let me check the etymology of that. Oooh, HOW interesting .....'

  3. Thank you, very interesting. You do have a wonderful job, and we all benefit.