History of the Oxford English Dictionary, OED

(of all of those who were involved with the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, it was James Murray who made the greatest contributions)

James Augustus Henry Murray (1837-1915) was the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

From 1879, when he became chief editor, until his death 36 years later at the age of 78, James Murray devoted his life to the Dictionary. He was personally responsible for "more than half of the English vocabulary, comprising all the words beginning with the letters A-D, H-K, O-P, and all but a fraction of those beginning with T."

Murray also provided a model methodology and set the exacting standards that would make the OED the world-renowned resource it is today.

Murray had no formal philological training, but his lifelong interest in language and etymology developed from an early age. In many respects an autodidact, he left school in Scotland at the age of fourteen and a half (having already started to study four languages), and soon afterwards recorded on the flyleaf of one of his books, the first issue of John Cassell's serial publication Popular Educator (1852), the two mottoes "Knowledge is power" and Nihil est melius quam vita diligentissima, "Nothing is better than a life of utmost diligence". He was to pursue these objects with consistency and fortitude over the course of his life.

Murray started his career by training as a teacher, becoming a headmaster in Scotland before moving south for the benefit of his first wife's health. Here, after a brief period at the Chartered Bank of India in London, he was appointed schoolmaster at Mill Hill School in 1870.

During this time he developed his academic and intellectual interests with more studying, chiefly in philological disciplines of one sort or another. He produced several editions for the Early English Text Society and wrote The Dialects of the Southern Counties of Scotland, which was published in 1872. By 1869 he had joined, and in 1878 was elected president of, the Philological Society.

The Society had been making preparations for a New Dictionary on "Historical Principles" since Richard Chenevix Trench's lectures of 1857, and the collection and collation of quotations had started under the editorships of Herbert Coleridge and F. J. Furnivall.

On March 1, 1879, after much discussion between the Philological Society and the OUP, Murray was officially appointed editor. He initially kept his job as schoolmaster, and worked on the Dictionary in his spare time, in his "scriptorium", a purposely-built corrugated-iron workroom in his garden.

The completed work which he inherited was inadequate: many quotation slips had been lost or damaged and there was much to be re-done. In addition, it became clear that the original estimate of a dictionary of 7,000 pages, to be completed in ten years, was unrealizable and that it was essential that Murray should devote himself to the task of editor full-time; so, he resigned from his job as schoolmaster and moved with his family to Oxford (to 78 Banbury Road) in 1885 where he built another scriptorium in his garden.

Murray worked sometimes ninety hours a week and wrote an average of thirty or forty letters a day to correspondents of all kinds (often during a time that would have been better spent on the Dictionary itself, as he himself recognized).

When he felt overwhelmed by the difficulties of his task, he lived a life focused on the happy family domesticity provided by his second wife Ada (whom he married in 1867) and their eleven children, all of whom were pressed into service sorting quotation slips when young. (Hilda, Elsie, and Rosfrith made particularly notable contributions as editorial assistants; his eldest son Harold was a prolific reader for the Dictionary.)

Murray thought of the dictionary as a national project, a co-operative effort, saying, in 1900: "The English Dictionary, like the English Constitution, is the creation of no one man, and of no one age; it is a growth that has slowly developed itself adown the ages."

Yet, while he saw it as a cumulative evolutionary process, Murray recognized the leap forward that had been taken in his own time: "It can be maintained that in the Oxford Dictionary, permeated as it is through and through with the scientific method of the century, Lexicography has for the present reached its supreme development."

Murray's posthumous influence was strong: succeeding lexicographers inherited not only his uncompromising scholarly standards but also his habit of entrenchment against the publishers, inevitably if reluctantly alternated with capitulation and co-operation.

He left three co-editors to carry his work forward: Henry Bradley, W. A. Craigie and C. T. Onions; together with a staff of well-trained and devoted workers, three of whom subsequently worked on the first Supplement (A. T. Maling, F. J. Sweatman, and his daughter Rosfrith Murray.

—Compiled from information located in
Caught in the Web of Words by K.M. Elisabeth Murray; Oxford University Press; New York; 1977; and
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press; London; 2004.