James Murray
[ Issue 8 ]

James Murray and the 'Oxford English Dictionary' keep Emily Bronto occupied for hours

Bikwil salutes James Murray and the 'Oxford English Dictionary'

James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary

James Murray is one of Harlish Goop's heroes, and when you read his essay you'll see why he calls Murray "the greatest dictionary maker who ever lived". 

By the time he died, what unexpectedly turned out to be his life’s work had become (and remains) the pre-eminent accomplishment of English language lexicography — honoured as the supreme authority, held in awe, and loved the world over

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


Permit me to introduce one of my heroes – Sir James Murray.

James who?

James Augustus Henry Murray, who lived from 7 February 1837 until 26 July 1915.


You’ve heard of Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary? Well, James Murray was a far more talented dictionary maker, despite his obscurity when compared with the fame of Dr. Johnson. Indeed, in all likelihood Murray was the greatest dictionary maker who ever lived.

You see, by the time he died, what unexpectedly turned out to be his life’s work had become (and remains) the pre-eminent accomplishment of English language lexicography – honoured as the supreme authority, held in awe, and loved the world over — from the Netherlands to the United States, from Japan to South Africa, from Australia to Barbados. For James Murray was the planner, standard setter, layout designer, principal inspiration and Editor-in-chief of the magnificent Oxford English Dictionary.

When I was at high school in the 1950s, it was de rigeur to have in your home a well-thumbed copy of the 1,500-page Concise Oxford — originally abridged from the OED in 1911 by no less a personnage than Henry Watson Fowler himself, together with his brother Frank George Fowler. Since then I have worked with many people in Sydney who also kept a COD on their desk, and swore by it.

Then there’s the bulky two-volume Shorter Oxford, though few people, I imagine, would have recourse to this, either at home or at work. Myself included.

Why not go the whole hog and use the full OED? Well, cost for one thing (about $3,700), and size for another. How many of you are not really familiar with the dimensions of the “big Oxford”? Hands up, don’t be shy. Well, go into your local library sometime and have a squiz. What you’ll find, if your library’s wealthy enough, is the second edition in 20 volumes — more than 5,000 definitions, almost 2 and a half million illustrative quotations, and over 21,500 pages. Massive tomes, all 30 cm. high, and some over 5 cm. thick.

(These days you can also get condensed access to the OED via micrographics and computer, and, who knows, I might well devote a column to those formats at a later date.)

The first edition was published initially in 124 unbound parts (or fascicles) for those who had taken out advance subscriptions, the first in 1884 and the last not till 1928, almost half a century after Murray had commenced work. These parts were soon reissued in ten bound volumes. The first completed copies were sent to King George V and President Calvin Coolidge.

Poor old James Murray didn’t live to see the 1928 completion date, but even so, when he died in 1915 he had worked over 35 years on the OED. When he started, Murray had estimated that it would amount to about 7,000 pages in four volumes and take about ten years, but his meticulous work methods and unswervingly high standards would thoroughly thwart that intention. After five years of part-time toil, for example, he’d got as far as the word “ant”.

Nevertheless, in the light of his gargantuan achievement all blowouts of cost and time are now forgiven. Amazingly, he wrote almost half the first edition himself (that’s 7,207 pages out of a total of 15,487 — the letters A-D, H-K, O, P and T), though he did have a varying handful of poorly paid people directly assisting him, mainly in research plus some sub-editing. His children helped, too, with sorting as soon as they could read, and later, in their well-educated adulthood, with research. As well, there was a worldwide flock of voluntary readers — hundreds, amateur and professional — supplying tens of thousands of word usage quotations.

The remainder of the Dictionary was written by Murray’s official collaborators: Henry Bradley (second editor from 1887, and chief editor on Murray’s death), William Craigie and Charles Onions.

So how did James Murray achieve what he did? What were the principles guiding that fastidious work procedure of his? And how did he come to be involved with the OED in the first place?

First some quick details about the man himself.

Born in a small Scottish village, Murray was academically precocious and persistent and largely self-educated. “James Murray will never make a farmer,” said the locals, “he always has a book in his pocket.” At the age of 14 his family’s poverty forced him into tailoring, his father’s trade, though three years later he won a position as an assistant schoolmaster.

In 1864, again through dire financial need (his wife of two years and child were seriously ill), he was obliged to find better paying work in London as a bank clerk. He was unable to return to his first love, teaching, until the age of 33.

In his “recreational” moments (apart from a study of botany and archaeology) he involved himself as a well-informed amateur in the world of Victorian linguistic scholarship. He started with the dialect of his native Border District and moved soon to Anglo-Saxon and German and then in “a mania for learning languages” to any language he could lay his mind and tongue to – 25 in all, including Gothic, Russian, Hungarian, Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi and Tongan.

In appearance, James Murray was tall, thin and good-looking. About the time he first took up school teaching he grew a red beard, and wore it longer and longer as the years passed and its colour turned, first to sandy gold, then to snow white before he had turned 50.

But he aged well, and two years before his death was still feeling fresh and ready for work early each morning. Except on Sundays, his daily routine while working on the Dictionary went as follows. (He worked at home.) He awoke at 5 am, took a cold bath followed by a brisk walk, did some work, had his porridge and went off again to his lexicography. He had lunch at 1.30, during which he managed to talk non-stop about his current Dictionary problems, then went back to work. After a light evening meal he worked again, often till 11 pm.

Murray married twice. His first wife had died after three years of marriage, a year after the death of their only child, a daughter aged 7 months. His second wife Ada bore him 11 children, many of whom he gave Anglo-Saxon names such as Aelfric, Oswyn, and Rosfrith, and all of whom survived.

A devoted family man, with an extremely strong religious leaning – a pious Congregationalist, simple in his faith – Murray was a strict teetotaller and non-smoker who never in his life once attended a theatre and who barely tolerated music. He has been described variously as imaginative, honest, born to instruct, optimistic, unworldly and given to feelings of inferiority and even martyrdom. Despite his generally austere manner, in the right circumstances he allowed himself to show a genial smile.

His academic awards?

In his mid thirties (1871-3), long after his self-education had begun, he worked for a B.A. degree at London University. In 1874 he had an Honorary LL.D conferred on him by Edinburgh University. Other honorary awards followed. Even more belatedly (1885) Oxford University awarded him an Honorary M.A.

Twenty-three years later he received a Knighthood, and still more tardily, only a year before his death, Oxford presented him with an Honorary D. Litt.

His non-intellectual hobbies included gardening and when on holidays vigorous hiking in the high hills or bike riding in Wales.

With a life, work and play ethic like that, Murray’s achievement with the Oxford English Dictionary comes as little surprise.

Three years before he began work on the OED, he had been associated with an abortive attempt to produce a concise English dictionary for the Macmillan publishing firm in collaboration with the American Harper company. This abridged dictionary was actually a cut-down version of a massive work (The New English Dictionary) envisaged by three influential members of the Philological Society, Richard Trench, Herbert Coleridge and Frederick Furnivall, who as early as 1857 had begun collecting words for it.

All lexicographic principles for the Macmillan-Harper New English Dictionary were the Society’s (mainly Trench’s), and in time, greatly improved by James Murray, they would lay the foundation for the great Oxford undertaking.

One of these ideals looked back beyond Webster – whose work (1828-64) was currently the dictionary held in highest regard internationally – to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary a century earlier. The Society wanted to retain the latter’s original use of illustrative quotations to show word usage, but on a larger scale.

Simultaneously, they wanted to follow methods of philology begun in Germany in 1812 by Franz-Passow, which would enable the new dictionary to show the life history of every word. The quotations would therefore have to show historical changes of form and sense, rather than merely to illuminate the meaning of words, which had been the emphasis with Johnson and his successors.

As well as the quotations idea, the Society’s methods of gathering dictionary material introduced two additional far-reaching innovations in English lexicography.

The first was borrowed from the Grimm brothers in Germany. This required the enlisting of help from a team of volunteers, some members of the Society, others drawn from the public. Instead of relying one person alone to find and prepare entries for such a mammoth work, these volunteers would read book after book, record their word discoveries and deliver them to an editor. It would be the editor’s job to concentrate on etymology, pronunciation and word history, plus the choice of quotations from all those gathered.

The second, arising from the first, was to have each quotation reported on a separate slip, to be arranged in alphabetical order in pigeon-holes while editing took place. When the trio began they confidently believed that 100,000 slips (an enormous figure at the time) would do the job, but by the time the OED was published, no less than five and half million slips had been collected.

One member of the Philological Society, by the way, was a phonetician called Henry Sweet. He would be immortalised in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and later in My Fair Lady, as the eccentric Henry Higgins character.

Phonetics was by now very important to Murray, and he had tried various methods then in vogue for representing speech sounds. One of these systems was the Visible Speech of one Alexander Melville Bell, with whom Murray became friends. It was Bell, in fact, who later introduced Murray to the Philological Society.

Bell had a teenage son called Alexander, who one day asked Murray to teach him something about electricity, so Murray built him an electric battery and a voltaic pile out of halfpennies and disks of zinc. In time Alexander Graham Bell would reap his own glory, but he was ever grateful for those early lessons in electricity, and always referred to James Murray as “the grandfather of the telephone.”

The Society’s original dictionary editor was Coleridge, and it was he who suggested the idea for the pigeon-holes. But he died in 1861, and the pertinacious Furnivall who took over the reins soon realised that for all his own enthusiasm the Society needed someone with more scholarship and patience than he possessed, and started casting his wily net for a suitable editor. As things transpired, Furnivall’s often misdirected fanaticism for the project would be one of Murray’s chief bugbears for the next 30 years.

(This article on James Murray will be concluded in the next issue of Bikwil.)

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