Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Birthday: "The circle of the English language has a well-defined center but no discernible circumference."


James Augustus Henry Murray (1838-1915)
Educator, lexicographer, philologist, editor

Few went so far on such an unpromising start. Born poor in a Scots Borders village, James Murray was a precocious child with a mania for learning (at seven he was comparing a Chinese and English Bible, and eventually mastered 29 languages and dialects). He left school at fourteen, but was such a voracious autodidact that by seventeen he was a schoolteacher, and, at twenty, head of a grammar school.

Married, he lost his first child to tuberculosis and moved with his wife to London. They hoped the milder climate would go easier on her TB. He took a clerk’s job with a bank. His wife died, and he remarried.

The scope of his self-teaching marked him as a comer, but his two great lacks- a degree and a working class background, hampered him. When he applied for a job under Thomas Watts, Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum, he claimed an ‘intimate acquaintance’ with Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish and Latin, and 'to a lesser degree' Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal & various dialects’. In addition, he was ‘tolerably familiar’ with Dutch, German and Danish. His studies of Anglo-Saxon and Mœso-Gothic had been ‘much closer’, he knew ‘a little of the Celtic’ and was at the time ‘engaged with the Slavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of the Russian’. He had ‘sufficient knowledge of Hebrew and Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito’ and to a lesser degree he knew Aramaic, Arabic, Coptic and Phoenician.

He wasn’t hired.

His second marriage was a famous success. Murray continued his seemingly endless studies into endless topics, while fathering eleven children, all of whom lived to adulthood. By 1869 his amateur studies in philology- particularly, of Scots Borders dialects- won him admission into the British Philological Society and, in 1873, a ticket back into teaching, at Mill Hill School. He obtained his BA from the University of London that year, and an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh capped his credentialing issue in 1874.


In 1879, Murray’s moment came. A long-bruited project- a comprehensive dictionary of the English language, had been adrift for several decades, either lacking funding or the right man to get it- and keep it- moving. An 1876 attempt by the publisher Macmillan to jumpstart it failed, but Murray, on a committee of advisors, did such impressive preparatory work that, three years later, he was the only man for the job.

Taking a page from Dr Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary, the New English Dictionary was to be drawn from examples taken from literature as far back as 1150 AD, to show the development, as well as the meaning, of words.

Murray was offered the editorship of the project, now under the direction of the Oxford University Press. It was to take ten years, and produce four 1600-page volumes. His 1879 Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public unleashed a flood of submissions by volunteers, some of whom devoted decades to the work.

Murray adored Mill Hill, though, and didn’t want to move. His living came with a comfortable home, and he was well-liked by the school community. Oxford dons would not likely welcome him into their midst.

He built a shed in his backyard, dubbed “the Scriptorium,” where he spent five years organizing and drafting the first volume, “A-B.” All of his children grew up in the Scriptorium, helping sort and file the endlessly-arriving slips in the 1029 pigeon-holes he had built in for the project.

When Murray was set up, wagon-loads of sacks started arriving from the previous editor: 3,750 pounds of slips accumulated over the previous twenty years.

A system had to be developed for categorizing and classifying them, and for the format of entries; it was 1882 before the actual work, starting with the letter “A” began.

A beta edition covered 160 pages by 1881, and work with the Clarendon Press began on the design and typesetting of the work. Murray reported, in May, 1884, that with six assistants and a fair wind, the work could be done by March, 1896. So great was the torrent of contributions from all over the world that the Royal Mail installed a pillar box in front of his house; mail bearing only, “Mr Murray, Oxford,” always got through to him.


His prediction of production quickly came undone. As the Historical Introduction to the Oxford English Dictionary drily notes, “That it failed to work out was certainly due in great part to the fact that A was not a good letter on which to base the calculation, and to a steady increase in the material which could not at that time be foreseen.”

The Press convinced him to move to Oxford, where it could loan him a few clerks. He bought a house in North Oxford, built another Scriptorium in the back garden, and resumed the work.

It took until 1888- nine years into the project, to publish A-B.

C and E came out four years later; D and F four years after that.

H and G came out in 1899 and 1900 as staffing was increased and three additional editors were hired. The Fellows of The Queen’s College, Oxford, laid on a celebratory dinner for Murray and his team in 1897.

The first generation of clerks and subeditors was giving way to the next, and Murray, who was about to turn sixty, began to realize that, no matter how hard he worked, or how fast the sections of the dictionary could be produced, he would probably not live to see its completion (he worked 80-hour weeks into his seventies). The team not only had to research past usage of words, but keep up with news ones, all at once.


As the work progressed, completed sections were published “fascicles”, unbound pieces; when enough for a volume were ready, out came a hardcover book. Murray’s iron constitution set the pace. As the OED blog notes,

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.


By 1908 the work had reached “M” and Murray received a knighthood. No one knew when the work would end- Murray thought he would manage it by his 80th birthday- but it was so well along it would, certainly, reach an end. After 1905 the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London added significant financial support to the project, which eased the load the University Press had carried alone for three decades.

The Great War put paid to those plans. The military draft began pulling out the younger clerks, then, older ones as well, slowing the work. Murray, who had worked for thirty-six years with only the occasional holiday and one longer trip (to south Africa, to collect one of his nine honorary degrees; Oxford and Cambridge, insular as ever, were the last, in 1914 and 1915), began to falter, and died at 78.

The last segments, “Wh-Wy” were finished in 1927, and the full ten-volume edition was published a year later. Of its 15,487 pages, 7,207 were edited by Murray. He edited A-D, H-K, O, P and all but the last of T.

A child and grandchild of Murray’s wrote biographies of him; his granddaughter's 1970s Caught in The Web of Words was a bestseller and revived his renown.

Simon Winchester’s 1998 book, The Professor and the Madman, told the story of one contributor to the dictionary, an American doctor called William Minor, who- after ten thousand submissions- Murray learned was a murderer confined in the insane asylum at Broadmoor (another Winchester book on the OED, The Meaning of Everything, appeared in 2003).

Old words continued to acquire new uses and new words kept being coined. A one-volume supplement to the OED came out in 1933. A second supplement, in four volumes, came out between 1972 and 1986. As the computer age rose, the University Press developed custom hardware and software and hired 120 people to type the entire OED into digital form, while another team updated and added entries. The 22-volume Second Edition came out in 1989. Three years later the entire set- all 600,000 words, four feet of shelf space and 150 pounds of it- was reduced to a compact disc. The next step, in the works, is a $55 million project to update and revise the entire dictionary for publication online. Its early “fascicles” have been replaced with electronic updates, four a year.

#LiteraryBirthdays #HenryBemisBooks #JamesMurray #OxfordEnglishDictionary

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