Did you know that James Murray… rode both bicycles and tricycles—but not always very well?
2015 marks the centenary of the death of James Murray, the first Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Murray’s work as a lexicographer is well known, but there was a great deal more to him than lexicography. We are therefore marking the anniversary with an occasional series of articles highlighting other aspects of his life and achievements.
It is almost a relief to discover that a man who in so many ways was such an overachiever was less than brilliant at something.
Shortly after Murray moved to Oxford, in 1885, he purchased both a single and a tandem tricycle. The single trike became a well-known sight in Oxford, as Murray used it to deliver copy for the Dictionary to Oxford University Press; when turning sharply he often managed to buckle one of its wheels, causing it to collapse. The tandem, which he sometimes rode with his wife Ada, was also problematic, mainly because of its brake, which was rather difficult to apply quickly. This resulted in the two of them ending up in a ditch one day when coming down the steep road which led from the village of Elsfield down into Oxford, it having proved impossible to apply the brake in time. The image of Murray calling out ‘Hold on tight love’ as their vehicle careered down the hill makes an amusing contrast to the more well-known dignified photographs of the great lexicographer. On another occasion he managed to leave the brake on throughout a pleasure excursion on the tandem with his great friend the etymologist Walter Skeat, as a result of which both men ended up having to work far harder at pedalling the tricycle than necessary.
The tricycles were soon followed by bicycles, both for Murray himself and for various members of his large family. Murray became an enthusiastic cyclist, and even on occasion attached a trailer to his bike, in which he would take Ada out for trips round the countryside; he was still cycling well into his seventies. However, he apparently never learnt to dismount except by falling off sideways, and was involved in numerous accidents. His granddaughter Elisabeth Murray gives an impressive list of these in her biography Caught in the Web of Words: ‘nearly run down […] by an omnibus and a careering hansom cab in the centre of Birmingham: skidding on the tram lines returning at night from giving an address at the Cowley Congregational Chapel: scaring the milkman as he cannoned off his pony’s side: arguing with the parent of a little girl with whom he collided in Holywell: falling when riding through Machynlleth carrying a parcel.’ Once there was even a court case, following an occasion when Murray found himself once again in a ditch after an encounter with a butcher’s cart.