Permit me to
introduce one of my heroes – Sir James Murray.
Augustus Henry Murray, who lived from 7 February 1837 until 26 July
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.
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
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.
there’s the bulky two-volume Shorter Oxford, though few people,
I imagine, would have recourse to this, either at home or at work.
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.
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.)
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
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”.
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
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.
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?
some quick details about the man himself.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
years later he received a Knighthood, and still more tardily, only a
year before his death, Oxford presented him with an Honorary D. Litt.
non-intellectual hobbies included gardening and when on holidays
vigorous hiking in the high hills or bike riding in Wales.
a life, work and play ethic like that, Murray’s achievement with the Oxford
English Dictionary comes as little surprise.
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.
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.
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.
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
well as the quotations idea, the Society’s methods of gathering
dictionary material introduced two additional far-reaching innovations
in English lexicography.
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
article on James Murray will be concluded in the
next issue of Bikwil.)