- Series: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary
- Paperback: 462 pages
- Publisher: Yale University Press (March 1, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0300089198
- ISBN-13: 978-0300089196
- Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.9 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,335,953 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary Paperback – March 1, 2001
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"A biography that possesses many of the virtues of James Murray himself grace, humor, intelligence, curiosity, and scholarship." -- Time
"A moving and dramatic story . . . sometimes tragic, often comic, ultimately triumphant." -- Times, London
From the Back Cover
This unique and celebrated biography describes how a largely self-educated boy from a small village in Scotland entered the world of scholarship and became the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and a lexicographer greater by far than Dr. Johnson. It also provides an absorbing account of how the dictionary was written, the personalities of the people working on it, and the endless difficulties which nearly led to the whole enterprise being abandoned.
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In two years at school he learned four languages. After school he was tutored in two more by a family friend, Italian and German. His family did not send him to grammar school at Melrose because there were other boys to educate. He became an assistant master when he was seventeen. By 1857 he was developing an interest in philology. Seeing Anglo-Saxon put him into a high state of excitement. He moved to London and started to work at Russian. He wrote THE DIALECT OF THE SOUTHERN COUNTIES OF SCOTLAND.
James Murray was respected by Morris, Ellis, Sweat, Skeat--men instrumental in revolutionizing the science of etymology. In 1868 at the Philological Society Murray encountered Frederick Furnivall. Furnivall was an inveterate founder of organizations for the study of English. Murray became an editor of the dictionary project of the Philological Society after the first editor, Herbert Coleridge, died. Borrowing the method of work from the Germans, Coleridge had started in 1860 with fifty four pigeon-holes. James Murray was named editor in 1877.
Ultimately there were sixteen thousand pages of the OED. Murray died in July 1915. The last portion of the dictionary appeared in 1928. Supplements to the dictionary were issued in 1933 and 1972. There are two appendices, notes, and an index in this very good book.
The task of Murray's granddaughter, K. M. Elisabeth Murray (1909-1998), in writing this now classic biography was made the easier by the fact that Murray was a genuinely good man, a man who loved his large family and who was, in turn, revered by them. Although Elisabeth Murray does not ignore her ancestor's occasional excitability and depression or his attempts to over-dramatize and exaggerate his plight as editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, she rarely has to apologize for any of his specific actions. James Murray tried desperately to take the ethical high road. In the words of the psalmist, he was a person who "swears to his own hurt and does not change."
Wonderfully readable, the book seems to bog down only where the bog appears necessary, the "slough of despond" that too often bounded repeated negotiations for producing a dictionary so mammoth that even the experienced Murray seriously misjudged its final size. Otherwise, this book is the model life of a model scholar, a self-made man who ennobled both lexicography and his descendants with his determination to bend his life's energy toward a worthy goal.
James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, was a gentle man of words who dedicated his life to the study of the English Language. His efforts are best understood in this book by the descriptions Elisabeth gives of his scriptorum, where Murray spent the majority of his life, and where Elisabeth worked as a young lady.
In reading about this man's life and the effort that was required to undertake the construction of this dictionary, one really gets a sense of the vastness and complexity of the English Language, the historical richness and the regional diversity. One also sees in florid detail the life of one of the great late-Victorian pedants.