5 facts you probably didn’t know about James Murray
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.
1. Did you know that James Murray was a great admirer of another self-taught linguist born in the same village as himself?
Just over sixty years before Murray was born there, the Roxburghshire village of Denholm brought into the world an earlier remarkable autodidact, who became a great inspiration to the later man. John Leyden (1775–1811) was the son of a shepherd, but despite the very limited opportunities for education which were open to him, he managed to acquire sufficient learning to earn himself a place at college in Edinburgh at the age of fifteen. While studying for the ministry, he also attended lectures in as many other subjects as he could, including Italian, ancient Icelandic, Persian, and several other languages; he was also, like Murray after him, a keen student of natural history. He later also qualified as a doctor, and went on to work as a surgeon in India, where he became proficient in several other languages, eventually becoming a professor of Hindustani at Calcutta, and publishing several books and papers on Oriental languages. As if this wasn’t enough, he was also a noted poet, and an important student of Scottish literature: he helped Walter Scott with the collection of traditional Scottish ballads, and prepared a modern edition of the key early Scots text The Complaynt of Scotlande. This is a quite remarkable collection of achievements for a man who died before his thirty-sixth birthday; no wonder the citizens of Denholm were proud of him. An impressive monument erected in his memory still stands in the centre of the village.
A studious young man growing up in Denholm only a few decades after Leyden’s death was bound to hear a lot about John Leyden—there were even people around who still remembered him—and the young James Murray soon came to see him as something of a role model; he read and memorized some of Leyden’s poems, even trying his hand at writing his own verse in a similar style. He also emulated him, of course, in his avid study of languages. Leyden also became the subject of some of his first scholarly research. A letter reporting some evidence he had collected about Leyden’s precise birthplace appeared in the Scotsman on 18 February 1857; the twenty-year-old Murray signed it as Secretary of the Hawick Archaeological Society, which he had helped to found a few months earlier. In 1858 a drawing by Murray of Leyden’s birthplace appeared as a frontispiece to a new edition of Leyden’s poems.
A decade later Murray found himself treading in Leyden’s footsteps again, when he undertook to produce an edition of The Complaynt of Scotlande for the Early English Text Society; his introduction to the new edition paid tribute to the high quality of his predecessor’s work.
2. Did you know that James Murray was a teetotaller?
He joined the local Total Abstinence Society in Hawick in the 1850s, and remained a teetotaller all his life. Soon after moving to Oxford in 1885 he became active in the Oxfordshire Band of Hope and Temperance Union, and subsequently also the University Total Abstinence Society. His views on the subject were made known to a wider public in the book Study and Stimulants, whose author (Alfred Reade) had solicited letters from over a hundred famous individuals, including such luminaries as Darwin, Mark Twain, Anthony Trollope, Ivan Turgenev, and Thomas Edison, as well as several figures closely connected with the Dictionary, including Frederick Furnivall and Walter Skeat. Murray’s letter is characteristically judicious:
I use no stimulants of any kind, and should be very sorry to do so. I thought it was now generally admitted that the more work a man has to do, the less he can afford to muddle himself in any way. But as I have never tried the experiment in using either alcohol or tobacco, and cannot afford to do it, I have no comparative experience to offer. It might be beneficial; I do not believe it would, and prefer not to risk the chance. Fiat experimentum in corpore viliore [let the experiment take place in a lowlier body].
3. Did you know that James Murray advised Gladstone on spelling and other language matters?
The great Liberal statesman William Ewart Gladstone (1809–98) had known Murray since 1879, at the beginning of his editorship of the OED; the two men met in the summer of that year when Gladstone was invited to Mill Hill School (where Murray was at that time still a master) to distribute prizes. Murray, a staunch Liberal, greatly admired Gladstone, whose picture later hung in the drawing-room of his house in Oxford; but in fact the admiration was mutual, and Gladstone was soon sending occasional lexicographical queries to Murray, as for example in 1881 when he consulted him about the word suzerain. In 1896, while working on his edition of the works of Bishop Joseph Butler—which in due course was published by OUP—he queried Butler’s use of the word forgo, which he felt should be spelt forego. Horace Hart, who as Printer to the University of Oxford had responsibility for overseeing the printing of Gladstone’s book, pointed out that there were etymological grounds for preferring the spelling forgo, but Gladstone apparently remained unconvinced, and decided to consult Murray as the ultimate authority. Murray backed up Hart’s recommendation. Gladstone later wrote to Hart: ‘Personally I am inclined to prefer [the spelling] forego, on its merits; but authority must carry the day. I give in.’ His remarks were quoted in a footnote about forgo in several editions of Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers, the famous OUP guide to points of style, which also quoted Murray in regard to a number of other spelling matters.
4. Did you know that James Murray was an inspirational schoolteacher?
He had begun to teach while still in his teens; his first regular teaching post was in Hawick, near his birthplace in the Scottish Lowlands, where he was made Assistant Master of the town’s United School., although even before that he had taught at his local Sunday School. Only three years after starting at Hawick United School he became Head Master of Hawick Academy, where he threw himself into his work, even writing plays based on local history for the pupils to act. He subsequently moved to London, where he initially worked as a bank clerk, but in 1870 he was offered another teaching job at Mill Hill School. He remained there for the next fifteen years—for the last six of which, remarkably, he managed to combine his schoolmastering with the work of editing the first few hundred pages of the OED. Eventually it became clear that the editorship of the Dictionary required his undivided attention, and in 1885 he reluctantly resigned his teaching post and moved to Oxford.
At Mill Hill, as well as finding the work very fulfilling—he later looked back on his time there as the happiest period of his life—he was an enormously popular master. His love of natural history found expression in the founding of a Natural History Society, and he was always taking groups of boys to explore the nearby countryside; whole classes would be invited to his home for tea, which might also involve games of carpet bowls, dramatic recitations—Murray’s rendition of James Hogg’s ‘The Fate of Macgregor’ was especially popular—or the telling (by him) of hair-raising tales of the supernatural. He was also a strong supporter of the school magazine (which is one of the very few to be quoted in the first edition of the OED: an example of the unusual verb anamorphose, taken from an article written by Murray himself, appears in the Dictionary entry for the word). But it was his teaching which seems to have made the biggest impression. As one Old Boy recalled:
His classes were always intensely interesting. You never knew where you might arrive before the lesson was done. A nominal geography class might easily develop into a lecture on Icelandic roots […] Then the tricks he could play with words. Such was his skill and knowledge that many of us firmly believed that by Grimm’s law he could prove that black really was the same word as white.
Inevitably, the school became much involved in his lexicographical work. His teaching colleague Alfred Erlebach was to become one of his most valued assistants during the early years of his editorship; the nephew of another master also became an assistant for a while, as did the son of a former pupil; and dozens of Millhillians—teachers, present and former pupils, and even members of the headmaster’s family—responded to his appeal for help with the collecting of quotations. In fact many began to contribute quotations even before the appeal had been made to the general public: in April 1879 Murray could report that 5000 quotations had been sent in by pupils, and the aggregate contributions of Millhillians eventually amounted to tens of thousands of quotations. Murray is still remembered and honoured at Mill Hill: one of the school’s houses is named after him, there is a building called the ‘Murray Scriptorium’—a more substantial successor to the iron shed where the Dictionary’s first editor and his staff originally worked—and every year a James Murray Lecture is given by an individual who has achieved eminence in a particular field.
5. Did you know that James Murray is buried alongside Oxford’s first professor of Chinese?
James Legge (1815–97), an Aberdeenshire man who went out to China as a missionary in 1839 and remained in the Far East for most of the next three decades. In 1876 he became the first occupant of the newly created chair of Chinese language and literature at Oxford. He was a pioneer in another respect, in that he was also the first nonconformist to hold a professorship at Oxford: like Murray, he was a Congregationalist. It is not clear whether it was their Congregationalism or their academic work which first brought the two men together, but they became friends even before Murray’s move to Oxford, and thereafter Legge became one of Murray’s closest friends. Murray even made arrangements that he and his wife should be buried next to Legge in Wolvercote cemetery.
In another grave nearby in the same cemetery lies another OED lexicographer, although it was writing of another kind which brought him fame: J. R. R. Tolkien (who later became friendly with several members of the Murray family).