is the conclusion of an article on James Murray, original editor of the Oxford
By the time
Murray was approached with the Macmillan-Harper invitation to edit the
new dictionary, he had been a member of the Philological Society for
eight years, and had delivered many papers there, all well received. At
first puzzled by the invitation, since despite his long interest in
words and grammar he had never made any special study of lexicography,
he agreed to take over the editorship in his spare time.
venture came to naught (thanks to a devious and tactless letter from
Furnivall to Macmillan), Murray’s experience with it taught him a lot.
He could now see that the job of dictionary editing was very onerous,
and that there were still serious lexicographic problems to be solved,
despite Furnivall’s refusal to recognise them. Anyway, Murray knew he
would rather to devote his life to teaching. Maybe one day he might find
a position as a headmaster somewhere.
So when the
Society convinced Oxford to take on the originally dreamt-of much larger
work, mentioning James Murray as the editor (without Murray’s
knowledge), the latter found that it was too late to escape. He
reluctantly agreed to prepare some further specimens of his work – the
words “arrow”, “carouse”, “castle” and “persuade”.
however, did not entirely please the Delegates of the Oxford University
Clarendon Press, which consisted of language professors, other
professors and various church dignitaries. This was partly because of
Murray’s homemade method of indicating of pronunciation (use of the
International Phonetic Alphabet did not come to the OED till the second
edition), but mainly because of the etymologies, both vital features.
At the same time
the Oxford Delegates had agreed to publish an etymological dictionary by
another scholar, Walter Skeat, who had been working on this for many
years. The trouble was that Murray and Skeat were friends, and the
former had no intention competing with Skeat. In any case it was
doubtful whether Oxford would want to publish two overlapping
dictionaries, even if the Society’s Dictionary was to be much more
extensive in scope than Skeat’s.
to have nothing more to do with the project. Furnivall and the Delegates
persisted. Two weeks passed, during which Murray realised that he had
been deceiving himself and everyone else in his belief that the
Dictionary could be done in his leisure time.
Now, from our
vantage point today, of course, we find it easy to think of embarking on
such a mammoth job on a part-time basis as utter madness, but the point
is that James Murray had always wanted to teach for a living, and only
reluctantly became the lexicographer we remember him as.
Yet despite much
soul-searching and prayer, Murray still could not make up his mind, so
in the end his wife Ada made it up for him, saying that he “should
choose the Dictionary and do one big thing well”. After a completely
sleepless night, he took his courage in both hands and agreed. A salary
was negotiated — though not for the last time — and his toil began
series of decisions now facing him concerned policy on inclusions and
exclusions. What to do with Americanisms, for example? What about
compound words, scientific and technical words, sex words, slang? Murray
went for inclusiveness whenever he could, provided a suitable example of
usage could be found in print, but was from time to time overridden,
sometimes by expert advice, sometimes by the Delegates.
changed, of course, and in the late 20th century no dictionary maker can
afford to be squeamish with vulgarisms, say, even when they have barely
made their way into print.
But imagine, if
you can, the situation in Victorian England while the first edition of
the Oxford was being prepared. There is every likelihood that no swear
word ever passed the lips of the God-loving Murray, yet it is to his
eternal credit that he did not let his personal beliefs influence his
lexicography. From the start, therefore, the OED contained entries for
“arse”, “piss”, “shit” and “turd”, whereas two other
words (one in print since the 16th century, the other since the 14th)
were omitted — though not, we may assume, on Murray’s interdiction,
but on that of the taboo-ridden Delegates. Needless to say, both words
get a full airing in supplements and later editions. Novelist cum
linguist Anthony Burgess celebrates those subsequent inclusions in the
following sly manner:
One can imagine
Murray in heaven nodding his beard in approval at the scholarly
treatment of “fuck” and “cunt”.
On the subject of
technical words, the case of “appendicitis” is an interesting one.
The delegates thought it unnecessary to include it, on the basis that
obscure medical jargon was not fit for a general dictionary, however
comprehensive. Murray wasn’t sure, so he consulted the Oxford Regius
Professor of Medicine who likewise advised against its inclusion. So
omitted it was, but in 1902 Murray was disappointed to find it being
universally used when Edward VII’s coronation had to be postponed
because of the removal of his appendix.
important was the effort Murray put into “ordinary” words, hitherto
almost always neglected in dictionaries.
Thus a word like
“black” was thoroughly treated for the first time, and it and its
derivatives occupied over six pages. Likewise “do” (a very difficult
word to cover properly, which in the end took 16 times the space
allocated to it by Webster) and “doctor” (one whole page). The
verbal suffix “-ing” took three weeks of research and two days to
write properly. Another non-trivial everyday word was “point” which
required seven pages, while the little word “put” took even more.
careful to consult experts widely. Some words found him in
correspondence with authors like Robert Browning, George Eliot and R. L.
With regard to
layout, Murray worked hard to reconcile the conflicting aims of saving
space and making such a dense work easy on the eye. In addition to his
labours on this aspect for the Macmillan-Harper dictionary (nine proofs
he’d prepared for that), he now, with the assistance of the Clarendon
Press, devoted himself to solving the problems once and for all.
dictionaries — notably that of Littré in France — he decided on
three columns per page. It was his own idea, however, to add
paragraphing and typography changes to draw the eye to the key sections
of each entry. This notion he got from his long-standing appreciation of
its efficacy in school textbooks..
While some may
question the clarity of the original typefaces (the second edition in
fact was completely reset to enhance legibility), there can be no doubt
that Murray succeeded in giving the OED a consistent style, and devising
an organisation that made it all coherent. Moreover, his standardised
treatment has stood the test of time.
One of the most
fascinating aspects of Murray’s OED work was the environment in which
it was carried out. What served him and his assistants as a workroom was
an ugly unheated and poorly ventilated grey corrugated-iron portable
shed lined with deal timber erected next to his house. Murray called it
the Scriptorium, thinking no doubt of the word’s original meaning of
“a writing-room . . . set apart for the copying of manuscripts”; his
children knew it as “the Scrippy”. There were actually two
Scriptoria, one when the family were living at the Midland village Mill
Hill, and the other, slightly larger, when they all moved to Oxford,
with Murray hoping in vain to secure some sort of university
While safe from
fire, a draughty iron building in winter was to play havoc with the
workers’ health, despite the stove, which Murray was careful to turn
off at night. In very cold weather he was forced to wear an overcoat as
shelves for storing reference books, the Scriptorium was fitted out with
the aforementioned pigeon-holes to receive the millions of slips
generated by the army of volunteers readers.
all Dictionary entries by hand, using a fountain pen. For some reason he
preferred to work standing for hours at a sloping desk. His handwriting
was neat but microscopic.
pleasure with the acclaim the Dictionary received, Murray was was very
annoyed at the fame it brought him personally. It was anonymity he
craved, and when people started to refer to it as “Murray’s English
Dictionary” he felt compelled to write:
wish we knew nothing of Carlyle but his writings. I am thankful we know
so little of Chaucer & Shakespeare. I have persistently refused to
answer the whole buzzing swarm of biographers, saying simply “I am a
nobody — if you have anything to say about the Dictionary, there it is
at your will — but treat me as a solar myth, or an irrational
quantity, or ignore me altogether.”
not agree, and might be more willing to echo Burgess, who has written
“. . . the making of a dictionary is at least as heroic as the
building of a bridge.”
Now, before I
finish this tribute to the man who wrote the Oxford Dictionary for the
glory of God, I must tell you this. One branch of Murray’s father’s
family had emigrated to Australia, as well as one of his mother’s
brothers. In 1864, when his first wife and child were ill, he wrote in
desperation to his cousin, asking if there were any openings here for a
teacher. But delays in the mail service prevented her reply (which
actually was very encouraging) reaching him in time. Then his daughter
died, so he decided to take the London bank job, to better care for his
wife. Had he heard his cousin’s news earlier, his editorship of the
OED would never have eventuated. Australia’s intellectual life,
however, would have been the richer.
Not to worry. One
of those Australian descendants still lives. Though better known as
Australia’s most acclaimed living poet, Les Murray is himself a
language enthusiast, with linguistic interests as diverse as German and
Chinese, and justly proud of his family connection with the equally
great James Murray.
Like more detail
on Murray’s life, the trials of getting the OED into print or the
place in history of the “world’s greatest repository of the English
language”? There are a couple of options.
Try and find a
copy of Jonathon Green’s 1996 Chasing the Sun (ISBN 0 7126 6216), an
account of dictionary making from pre-Babylonian times to the present.
borrow from your library the definitive work on James Murray, the 1977
biography by K.M. Elisabeth Murray, his granddaughter. It carries the
fitting title Caught in the Web of Words. The ISBN is 0 300 02131 3.
Here is an
Anthony Burgess quote from the book-jacket:
is a magnificent story of a magnificent man, one the finest biographies
of the twentieth century, as its subject was one of the finest human
beings of the nineteenth. Everybody who speaks English owes Murray an
unpayable debt. Everybody even dimly aware of that debt ought to devour,
as I have done, this most heartening story of learning, energy, faith
and sheer simple humanity.
And from the
biography itself, where Murray relates a dream he claimed he had had of
was speaking of his Dictionary and Boswell, in an impish mood, asked,
would you say, Sir, if you were told that in a hundred years’ time a
bigger and better dictionary than yours would be compiled by a Whig?”
stirred in his chair.
began, “Sir . . .”, but Boswell persisted – “and that the
University of Oxford would publish it.”
thundered Johnson, “in order to be facetious it is not necessary to be