January 30, 2018

Words of the Month - Dr. Murray, Oxford

        James Augustus Henry Murray (UK, 1837-1915) was born 181 years ago on February 7, in honor of which I’m going to use this month’s “Words of the Month” slot to talk not about specific words, but about one of the most influential people in our modern, scholarly understanding of English words.  Murray was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, which also has an anniversary in February, as the very first section, with words A-Ant, was published on February 1, 1884.  A poor Scottish boy who dropped out of school at age 14 because his family couldn’t afford it, Murray was soon teaching others and by 21 had been made headmaster of the same kind of school he’d been unable to attend as a student.  He taught himself well over a dozen languages, as well as botany, geology, and archaeology, and he gave a 14-year-old Alexander Graham Bell his first lesson on electricity.  Murray earned himself a BA degree at the age of 36, and a year later he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University, thus making him “Dr. Murray.”  He was not just a prodigy of learning, but a prodigy of working, as well.  He regularly worked 80 or 90 hours a week on the OED, and kept up this pace into his 7os.  But he had a life, too, including a wife and family of 11 children, a church community, and a number of other Oxford societies.  (Fun fact: his children earned pocket money sorting quotation slips in Murray’s office, one son went on to be a major contributor of quotations, and three daughters became official members of the OED staff.)  With all that, Murray certainly makes me feel stupid and lazy!
        Okay, but we’re not here to discuss his hard work.  Lots of people in this world work incredibly hard.  We’re here to talk about Murray’s impact on the English language, through his editorial choices on the OED.  He personally edited more of the first edition of the OED than anyone else - about half of the dictionary - and he also set most of the practices and policies that defined the rest.
        Murray set the policy that the different senses of a word should be placed in the chronological order in which they had entered the language, as demonstrated by the citations on file, except when it seemed more logical that a later-attested sense must really have been earlier.  This was reasonable, since Murray knew the collected quotations couldn’t possibly be comprehensive and earlier uses might well be missing from the record, but it also means that for the third edition the OED is now reassessing some of those assumptions - and is also choosing to stick strictly with the chronology of their citations this time around.
        Murray began the prejudice toward literary sources and “print” which placed more weight, for example, on Shakespeare than on a personal letter from an earlier writer.
        Murray set the tone of the OED with the Victorian prudery which kept “bad words” out of the OED until 1972.
        Murray was conservative in adopting new words, especially slang, but he even held back on scientific words before he felt they were sufficiently commonly used throughout the language.  For example, the word radium, coined in 1899, was denied entry into the OED in 1902.
        Murray worked hard to eliminate ghost words from the OED, evidence again of his scrupulous scholarship.
        Murray wrote of “exotic” words such as khaki that “it would have been easy to double their number, if every such word occurring in English books, or current in the English colonies and dependencies, had been admitted; our constant effort has been to keep down, rather than to exaggerate, this part of ‘the white man’s burden.’”  Khaki, by the way, was admitted readily enough in 1901, though it was marked as “alien or not fully naturalized.”  It took WWI to truly integrate the word into English.
        Yet it was also Murray who put out the call to the entire English-reading world to send in citations.  It was Murray who chose to include “alien or not fully naturalized” words, rather than leave them out altogether.  It was Murray who so excited the English public about this dictionary project that when newspapers published the story of the Oxford University Press harassing Murray and second editor Henry Bradley to keep costs down and hurry up, public opinion supported the editors in taking their time and doing it right.  The university changed their tune.  Murray became such a celebrity, and involved so many people in the work of collecting citations (about 2,000 people sending in about 5 million quotations - that’s crowdsourcing) that he had a postbox installed outside his house, and anything addressed simply to “Dr Murray, Oxford,” would reach him.  This as much as anything else illustrates the success of the man who was born without his two middle names - he had added them himself as a young man when he first moved to a larger town and needed to differentiate himself from the other James Murrays there.
        It was also Murray who formed the relationship with one of the greatest single contributors to the OED, Dr William Chester Minor, who, Murray eventually discovered, was a criminally insane inmate of Broadmoor Asylum.  February also marks the anniversary of the murder for which Minor was incarcerated, which of course gave him plenty of time to read and develop his highly organized system of citations which was of so much use to the OED.  The relationship between Murray and Minor was the subject of a 1998 book, and was due to come out as a movie, “The Professor and the Madman,” some time this year.  (To quibble, Murray was a teacher and recipient of a doctorate degree, but never a professor.)  Murray will be played by Mel Gibson, which is a little hard to imagine, but apparently the movie is now mired in controversy and legal issues, so who knows when, if ever, it will reach theaters.
        Finally, a few words in which Murray had a direct hand:
nonce word - a word coined to serve an immediate specific communication need.  It may eventually become an established word (at which point it is no longer a nonce word), or it may simply be a one-shot deal.  Murray coined this word himself.
anamorphose - to represent by anamorphosis, a distorted projection or perspective in art.  This is hardly a common word, and Murray used as an OED citation for it an article written by himself in the magazine of the school where he taught.  It must have been a bit of an in-joke between himself and the dozens of colleagues and former students who eventually helped with the OED in various ways.
connexion and rime - Murray was avidly interested in spelling reform and while he would never change the spellings as they appeared in quotations, he did allow himself these two spelling variants of connection and rhyme in the definitions, etymologies, etc. which he himself wrote for the OED.  Eventually he relaxed his views, but not until the 1990s did the OED revisit those spelling decisions, and connexion, at least, has become quite common in British English.

        So, Happy Birthday, Dr Murray.  I would like to end this blog post as Murray ended the section on D at 11pm on November 24, 1896, with the most excellent, and yes, exotic, word dziggetai.  (It’s a Mongolian equine.)  He then added “Here endeth D” and, in Greek, “To God alone be the glory.”

[Pictures: Murray riding a sand-monster on the beach in Wales (Image from Oxford University Press Archives);
Denholm, The Birth Place of Dr. John Leyden [and Dr. James Murray], from a drawing by Murray, 1858 (Image from Oxford Dictionaries blog);
Dziggetai, wood engraving from Nouveau dictionaire encyclopédique universel illustré, 1885-1891 (Image from Old Book Illustrations).]

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