James Murray
[ Issue 9 ]

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

This is Part 2 (and the conclusion) of Harlish Goop's tribute to James Murray, editor in-chief of the first edition of The Oxford English Dictionary and "the greatest dictionary maker who ever lived".

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


(This is the conclusion of an article on James Murray, original editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.)

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.

Although the 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”.

These specimens, 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.

Murray resolved 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 anew.

An important 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.

Times have 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.

Extremely 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.

Murray was careful to consult experts widely. Some words found him in correspondence with authors like Robert Browning, George Eliot and R. L. Stevenson.

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.

Following earlier 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 appointment.

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 well.

Besides having 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.

Murray prepared 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.

Despite his 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:

I 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.”

Millions would 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.

Better still, 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:

It 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 Dr. Johnson:

Johnson was speaking of his Dictionary and Boswell, in an impish mood, asked,

“What 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?”

Johnson grunted.

“A Dissenter.”

Johnson stirred in his chair.

“A Scotsman.”

Johnson began, “Sir . . .”, but Boswell persisted – “and that the University of Oxford would publish it.”

“Sir”, thundered Johnson, “in order to be facetious it is not necessary to be indecent.”

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