Did you know that James Murray… once had his beard frozen solid?
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.
Murray was a keen walker and climber throughout his life; hill- and mountain-climbing featured in many of the holidays he took with his family, especially in Wales and the Lake District. On one occasion, however, he got rather more than he bargained for. In August 1904, in the course of one of his very few trips abroad, he arranged to climb a high peak in the French Alps called the Croix de Belledonne—which rises to nearly 3000 metres—in the company of a local guide. The two of them soon found themselves caught up in the worst August storm in living memory, with snow rising to their waists; but they persevered, and reached the summit. In a letter to one of his children Murray gave a description of his appearance when they returned to the mountain refuge of La Pra (about 1000 metres below the summit) which deserves to be quoted at length:
I had a kind of woollen neckerchief with a fringe tied round my face to prevent my ears freezing, and every fringe of this had become an icicle surrounding my face like a crown of thorns. My hair behind under my cap was converted into a circle of icicles […] But my beard—oh! you should have seen my beard—you have seen Aber Falls frozen—that was nothing to my beard—frozen streams from my whiskers & moustaches flowed into the main beard & coalesced with it into one huge icicle of clear blue ice […] They all burst into a great ‘Vivat!’ and ran for a looking glass […] it was like a Frost-giant of the Edda […] But my beard began to melt […] and after various unsuccessful efforts to break it away, they brought a block of wood, held it under my chin, and then with a large carpenter’s hammer, hammered away at my beard until they broke the clear blue ice into thousands of fragments.
His famous beard was apparently never quite as long thereafter as it had once been.