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Issue 65 - James Murray (1837-1915)

Scotland Magazine Issue 65
October 2012


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James Murray (1837-1915)

The Man of Words

James Murray is an inspirational character because he came from humble beginnings and achieved great things through his own determination and quest for knowledge. Murray was the epitome of a ‘self-made’ man.

He was born in the village of Denholm in the Scottish Borders, the eldest son of a draper. He was only educated until the age of 14, but Murray had varied academic interests that he pursued in his own time. Aged only 17, he became a teacher at Hawick Grammar School and three years later became a headmaster.

He married in 1862 but this first marriage was not to end well. His daughter died of tuberculosis while still a baby. His wife also contracted the disease and the couple moved to London in 1864 in the hope that she might recuperate.

Murray’s wife died the following year. However, the move to London had been exactly what Murray needed to further his scholarly interests and meet like-minded people.

At first he worked for the Chartered Bank of India, but this was far from his calling and he returned to teaching in 1873 at the Mill Hill School in London.

By this point Murray had remarried, and with Ada Agnes Ruthven he had 11 children.

His academic interests had now focused for some time on languages and etymology, and he was on the Council of the British Philological Society.

Up to this point, Murray’s life might appear rather ordinary, but it is the extent of his intellect and knowledge that is so astounding. Murray spoke more than 20 languages and many more dialects. He could read the Old Testament in its original Hebrew.

Murray encapsulated some of his knowledge in The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland, which was published in 1873. It was no doubt this, along with Murray’s growing reputation and scholarly acquaintance that led Oxford University Press to approach him in 1879 and set in motion the project that would become Murray’s life work.

He was invited to become the Chief Editor of the New English Dictionary, which later became known as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). This would replace Johnson’s dictionary and capture all the words within the English language at that time. It was an immense undertaking.

Murray was still teaching at this time, so he had a purpose-built Scriptorium erected in the school grounds. This would house his assistants and the growing volume of paper slips containing quotations and definitions. Murray made an ‘appeal to readers’, requesting volunteers to identify and define words for the dictionary.

One of his most enthusiastic volunteers was William Chester Minor, the American army surgeon and murderer who was imprisoned at Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Minor devoted his remaining days to working on the dictionary, in the end contributing about 12,000 quotations.

All these sorts of additions to the dictionary were delivered to Murray by the Royal Mail. He also had a considerable amount of outgoing post. Once he had given up teaching and moved to Oxford in 1885, the Royal Mail installed a post box outside his house due to the volume of mail associated with the OED project. It is said that any letter addressed to ‘James Murray, Oxford’ would find him.

At the outset, the dictionary was expected to fill four volumes and take 10 years to produce. In reality the dictionary took closer to 40 years, and filled 12 volumes.

There were significant disagreements along the way, with the Oxford delegates threatening to cancel the project and Murray close to resigning. But differences were resolved and the dictionary was produced according the system and methodology that Murray had devised. He personally edited half of the first edition, though he did not live to see it published, and provided the foundation for continuing work on the OED to this day.

Murray was awarded honorary doctoral degrees by nine universities, including the Oxford D. Litt in 1914. He was knighted in 1908. He worked to the end of his life, eventually succumbing to pleurisy on 26th July 1915 and is buried at Wolvercote cemetery in Oxford.