Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary by K.M. Elisabeth Murray

06 Oct

Front CoverYou know when you have dessert and you’re able to give yourself permission to enjoy it? No, I mean, really enjoy it…lick the container at the end enjoy it? That is this book. It is my favorite kind of book, so well researched (and cited), so in depth, with a risk pace meant for a lay reader to be able to get into. Originally published in 1977, the book was re-printed in 1995 in paperback (the cover above and the copy I have).

Caught in the Web of Words tells the story of James Murray, a self-taught scholar of a variety of topics. He studied botany, geology, geography, literature, and on and on. He was able to attend some school, but his main source of knowledge was voracious reading on the vast number of subjects that held his interest (a kindred spirit), and his personal observations. He was Scottish, and his early travels with his family impressed him with how little difference there was between people ( a deep cut in the earth between Scotland and England revealed the same dirt on both sides) and yet, how different the people and their languages were. As an adult, he taught schoolboys and girls and commenced his studies of etymology, the development and use of words and the changing meaning of said words through history. He was also still involved in his other interests and politics as well.

Moving to London in the late 1860’s on advice of doctors treating his wife, he had to give up his teaching and began working in a bank. His first wife, along with their child, died in London…yet Murray did not return home. He continued his philological studies (this is a great book for learning new words) and Ada, his formidable wife who bore him 11 children, was his faithful partner through many years of financial hardship, and ran the household, while still finding time to aid him in his work. He finally returned to teaching after 10 years, leaving London for Mill Hill. He was a member of many learned societies, yet felt inferior for his lack of University degree.

One of the members of the Philological Society, Frederick Furnivall, had launched, many years before, a drive to gather definitions and etymological development for a new dictionary. In 1876, through a fair bit of trickery, he convinced Murray to resume the work and edit a new, unabridged, dictionary of English. The dictionary was meant to contain common and uncommon words, quotes that showed their usage in literary and non-literary (read, newspapers and magazines) work, the etymology of words, and, controversially, phonetic pronunciation. The latter part was controversial for several reasons. The spelling of words was still not standardized, and many though this purpose should e more important than pronunciation. The presentation of phonetic pronunciation, likewise, was not yet standardized, many people putting forth their own particular pet system. Also, Murray was willing to print various pronunciations of a word, rather than one “correct”- presumably London Learned British, rather than Scottish, Irish, or any of the other derivations of the tongue. The undertaking was overwhelming, the kind of task one takes on because one is not entirely aware of the scope of the task. 30 years of volunteers reading volumes from different periods in history, hunting down quotations for various words throughout time, left plenty of gaps. Murray had to make a call for new readers, and several hundred people in Britain, and America, answered the call. Their work was, as is wont to be with volunteers, uneven. Hundreds of thousands of slips of paper had to be alphabetized, culled, deciphered, organized, chosen, further researched, all while under pressure from the Philological Society and Oxford University Press to get more printed, faster, and cheaper. Eventually, Murray would give up the majority of his other pursuits in order to focus exclusively on the dictionary. Assistant Editors, mostly hired by the Press and imposed on Murray without consultation, were eventually brought on. In the end, Murray did not live quite long enough to see the work completed.

I read the book with awe and extreme interest. Murray did an astonishing amount of research for this book, building on some preliminary genealogical research done by her father. She presents the information in an interesting, generally chronological form, while allowing herself to periodically follow a topic to it’s conclusion, then returning to the time addressed prior to exploring that topic. My only qualm is that, during the period of time Murray spent writing the dictionary, Ms. Murray concentrated all the focus on dictionary work, giving the impression (which James Murray himself did), that his life was nothing but dictionary all the time. She then uses one of the final chapters to tell about the rest of his life while compiling the dictionary. I would have preferred to see this contrast within the description of the dictionary work, rather than segregated from it. Licking the container? That’s me reading the end citations, eating up the bits of extra knowledge tucked away back there!

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Posted by on October 6, 2013 in Book Reviews


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