Did you know that James Murray… was for several years an advocate of spelling reform?
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.
The history of attempts to bring a greater degree of logic to the spelling of English is a long one, beginning long before work began on the OED. It may be surprising to some that when Murray began to edit what would become the Oxford English Dictionary—which, after all, is a descriptive dictionary, describing the language as it is and has been used rather than prescribing how it should be used—he had been interested in spelling reform for some time. So had other members of the Philological Society of London, under whose auspices the Dictionary had first been proposed; in fact in November 1869 he was asked by his good friend the phonetician Alexander Ellis to join a committee set up by the Society to consider what could be done to ‘amend the Orthography of the English Language’. Although the committee ended up being unable to agree on what reforms to recommend, Murray and Ellis—and many other members of the Society—remained keenly interested in the subject. In 1877 Murray played an active role at a conference on spelling reform held at the Society of Arts; among the resolutions passed was one seconded by Murray which advocated ‘a thorough revision’ of English spelling on the grounds that so much of it was ‘at variance both with etymology and pronunciation’.
The issue of spelling reform continued to be much debated over the next few years, and Murray remained fully engaged in the debate. Early in 1880, writing to a member of the English Spelling Reform Association, he declared himself in favour of the idea of an agreed list of simplified spellings—including hav, giv, catalog, tung, det, dout, coud, soverein, lovd, prest, and deckt—to be adopted by all those interested; in May of that year he devoted a substantial part of his retiring address as President of the Philological Society to a much longer list of similar recommendations, which resulted a few months later in the publication of a 40-page pamphlet of ‘Partial Corections of English Spellings Aproovd of by the Philological Society’.
At the same time Murray was putting some of these ideas into practice in the Dictionary, of which he had been made Editor in 1879. Of course thousands of words have varied in spelling over the course of their history; and the illustrative quotations used in the Dictionary to show this history carefully reproduced the spellings of the texts from which they were taken. But when using words in his own writing—in definitions, etymologies, and so on—in a very small number of cases Murray allowed himself to adopt a spelling other than the one most widely used. Among these are connexion, for which connection had become a widely used spelling during the 19th century, and—rather more controversially—rime instead of rhyme. Murray later described these spellings as ‘intrinsically the best’, but in preferring them over the more commonly used spellings he was rather going out on a limb. In fact he subsequently changed his views—much to the relief of his fellow editor Charles Onions, who later described Murray’s ‘spelling-reforming craze’ as something which he ‘should never have indulged in in a historical dictionary’—although the Dictionary was stuck with the decision to use connexion and rime, which remained the preferred spellings in editorial text until revision began in the 1990s.