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‘Dr. Murray, Oxford’: a remarkable Editor

Dictionaries never simply spring into being, but represent the work and research of many. Only a select few of the people who have helped create the Oxford English Dictionary, however, can lay claim to the coveted title ‘Editor’. In the first of an occasional series for the OxfordWords blog on the Editors of the OED, Peter Gilliver introduces the most celebrated, Sir James A. H. Murray.

By Peter Gilliver

If ever a lexicographer merited the adjective iconic, it must surely be James Augustus Henry Murray, the first Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary; although what he would have thought about the word being applied to him—in a sense which only came into being long after his death—can only be guessed at, though it seems likely that he would disapprove, given his strongly expressed dislike of the public interest shown in him as a person, rather than in his work. The photograph of him in his Scriptorium in Oxford, wearing his John Knox cap and holding a book and a Dictionary quotation slip, is almost certainly the best-known image of any lexicographer. But there is a lot more to this prodigious man.

In fact prodigious is another good word for him, for several reasons. He was certainly something of a prodigy as a child, despite his humble background. Born on 7 February 1837 in the Scottish village of Denholm, near Hawick, the son of a tailor, he reputedly knew his alphabet by the time he was eighteen months old, and was soon showing a precocious interest in other languages, including—at the age of 7—Chinese, in the form of a page of the Bible which he laboriously copied out until he could work out the symbols for such words as God and light. Thanks to his voracious appetite for reading, and what he called ‘a sort of mania for learning languages’, he was already a remarkably well-educated boy by the time his formal schooling ended, at the age of 14, with a knowledge of French, German, Italian, Latin, and Greek, and a range of other interests, including botany, geology, and archaeology. After a few years teaching in local schools—he was evidently a born teacher, and was made a headmaster at the age of 21—he moved to London, and took work in a bank. (It was only in 1855, incidentally, that he acquired the full name by which he’s become known: he had been christened plain James Murray, but he adopted two extra initials to stop his correspondence getting mixed up with that of the several other men living in Hawick who shared the name.) He soon began to attend meetings of the London Philological Society, and threw himself into the study of dialect and pronunciation—an interest he had already developed while still in Scotland—and also of the history of English. In 1870 an opening at Mill Hill School, just outside London, enabled him to return to teaching. He began studying for an external London BA degree, which he finished in 1873, the same year as his first big scholarly publication, a study of Scottish dialects which was widely recognized as a pioneering work in its field. Only a year later his linguistic research had earned him his first honorary degree, a doctorate from Edinburgh University: quite an achievement for a self-taught man of 37.

Dr. Murray, Editor

By this time the Philological Society had been trying to collect the materials for a new, and unprecedentedly comprehensive, dictionary of English for over a decade, but the project had gradually lost momentum following the early death of its first Editor, Herbert Coleridge. In 1876 Murray was approached by the London publishers Macmillans about the possibility of editing a dictionary based on the materials collected; the negotiations ultimately came to nothing, but the work which Murray did on this abandoned project was so impressive that when new negotiations were opened with Oxford University Press, and the search for an editor began again, it soon became clear that Murray was the only possible man for the job. After further negotiations, in March 1879 contracts were finally signed, for the compilation of a dictionary that was expected to run to 6,400 pages, in four volumes, and take 10 years to complete—and which Murray planned to edit while continuing to teach at Mill Hill School!

The Dictionary progresses. . .

As we now know, the project would end up taking nearly five times as long as originally planned, and the resulting dictionary ran to over 15,000 pages. Murray soon had to give up his schoolteaching, and moved to Oxford in 1885; even then progress was too slow, and eventually three other Editors were appointed, each with responsibility for different parts of the alphabet. Although for more than three-quarters of the time he worked on the OED there were other Editors working alongside him—he eventually died in 1915—and of course from the beginning he had a staff of assistants helping him, it is without question that he was the Editor of the Dictionary. (He soon had no need of those extra initials: a letter addressed simply to ‘Dr. Murray, Oxford’ would reach him without any difficulty, and he even had notepaper printed giving this as his address.) It was Murray who, in 1879, launched the great ‘Appeal to the English-speaking and English-reading public’ which brought most of the millions of quotation slips from which the Dictionary was mainly constructed—slips sent in from all parts of the English-speaking world, recording English as it was and had been used at all times and in all places. And it was during the early years of the project that all the details of its policy and style had to be settled, and that was Murray’s responsibility; the three later Editors matched their work to his as closely as they could. He was also responsible for more of the 15,000-plus pages of the Dictionary’s first edition than anyone else: the whole of the letters A–D, H–K, O, P, and all but the very end of T, amounting to approximately half of the total.

A dedicated man

What qualities enabled him to achieve this remarkable feat? It hardly needs to be said that he brought an extraordinary combination of linguistic abilities to the task: not just a knowledge of many languages, but the kind of sensitivity to fine nuances in English which all lexicographers need, in an exceptionally highly-developed form. He was also knowledgeable in a wide range of other fields. But one of his most striking qualities was his capacity for hard work, which once again deserves to be called prodigious. Throughout his time working on the Dictionary it was by no means unusual for him to put in 80 or 90 hours a week; he was often working in the Scriptorium by 6 a.m., and often did not leave until 11 p.m. Such a punishing regime would have destroyed the health of a weaker man, but Murray continued to work at this intensity into his seventies.

Somehow he managed to combine his work with a vigorous family life; another image of him which deserves to be just as well known as the studious portraits in the Scriptorium is the photograph showing him and his wife surrounded by their eleven children, or the one of him astride a huge ‘sand-monster’ constructed on the beach during one of the family’s holidays in North Wales. He also found time to be an active member of his local community: he was a staunch Congregationalist, regularly preaching at Oxford’s George Street chapel, and an active member of many local societies, and frequently gave lectures about the Dictionary. It is just as well that his conviction of the value of hard work was combined with an iron constitution.

But there is one image which vividly captures another, crucial aspect of this remarkable man, an aspect which arguably underpins his whole approach to life and work. Tellingly, it is not an image of the man himself, but of one of the slips on which the Dictionary was written. The winter of 1896 saw one of Murray’s numerous marathon efforts to complete a section of the Dictionary, in this case the end of the letter D. Very late in the evening of 24 November he was at last able to put the finishing touches to the entry for the word dziggetai (a mule-like mammal found in Mongolia, an animal which Murray would never have seen, and an apt illustration of the Dictionary’s worldwide scope). At 11 o’clock, on the last slip for this word, he wrote: ‘Here endeth Τῷ Θεῷ μόνῳ δόξα.’ The Greek words mean ‘To God alone be the glory’, a phrase which is to be found several times (in various languages) in his writings. For Murray his work on the OED was a God-given vocation. He certainly came to believe that the whole course of his life appeared, in retrospect, to have been designed to prepare him for the work of editing the Dictionary; and perhaps it was only his strong sense of vocation which sustained him through the long years of effort.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog. 

Peter Gilliver is an Associate Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and is also writing a history of the OED.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words — past and present — from across the English-speaking world. Most UK public libraries offer free access to OED Online from your home computer using just your library card number.

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Recent Comments

  1. janicu

    I’m confused. Is James Murray the first Editor, or is that Herbert Coleridge? This article names them both as first Editors.

  2. […] and that would end up being the last version of formal education he received for a long time. Oxford University Press explains that his natural brilliance helped carry him through life, leading him to several teaching […]

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