Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Delusions & Grandeur

James A. H. Murray

James A.H. Murray, younger
James A.H. Murray, younger
James Augustus Henry Murray was born in 1837 in Denholm, Scotland, the first-born son of a tailor. Murray and his siblings who followed were brought up in a strict religious household. Little is known of Murrays early childhood other than he had a passion for learning.

Murray spent a great deal of his youth seeking information on everything and anything he could get his hands on. By his early teens, he learned several languages, including Greek, French, Latin, Hebrew, Russian and Italian. He also took a great interest in archeology, geology, philology, politics, astronomy, botany, religion, history and geology. He amassed a remarkable amount of information in a relatively short period of time. Most of what he learned was self-taught.

At the age of 17, Murray became the assistant headmaster at the Hawick United School and, several years later, he advanced to the position of headmaster. He joined the Mutual Improvement Institute and delivered his first lecture, entitled Reading, its Pleasures and Advantages.   He also lectured on language, phonetics and archeology.

In 1861, Murray met and married a schoolteacher named Maggie Scott. Two years later, they had Anna, their first and only child. Not long after the birth, the young family was destroyed by a series of tragic events: Anna died in infancy and Maggie developed tuberculosis. The couple moved from Scotland to London where Murray secured a job as a bank clerk. They hoped that the change of environment would improve Maggies health, but it did not. Her condition steadily worsened and she died in 1864.

Following Maggies death Murray continued his pursuit of knowledge. It was his way of escaping the pain of losing his family. He began to research various dialects and languages, concentrating on those unique to the British Isles. Murray was so interested in languages that by the time he was in his late twenties, he had mastered approximately two-dozen languages and was in the process of learning more. Yet, his activities were temporarily interrupted when he was introduced to Ada Ruthven.

Caught in the Web of Words
Caught in the Web of Words
Ada and Murray shared many common interests and, after a brief courtship, the couple married. K. M. Elizabeth Murray, the granddaughter of James Murray suggested in her book, Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, that the couple enjoyed a happy relationship, one which produced 11 children.  

By the time Murray was in his 30s, he began to take more of an interest in philology and during the late 1860s, he joined the Philological Society of London. He began teaching at the Mill Hill School. Despite his busy schedule, he found time to work on his book, The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland, which was published in 1868. He also began editing manuscripts by Frederick Furnivall, the secretary of the Philological Society, dealing with historical English texts. During their work on the texts, the two men developed a friendship that would endure many years.

Frederick Furnivall, portrait
Frederick Furnivall, portrait
Since 1861, Furnivall managed the dictionary project, yet it was not a position for which he was well suited. Winchester wrote that although he was, clearly committed to his work on the dictionary he simply lacked the personal qualities necessary to lead it. Realizing his deficiencies, Furnivall tried to persuade Murray to fill his position as editor.

However, the delegates of the Oxford University Press were hesitant to accept him. They were concerned that Murray didnt have the skills to manage the project. Moreover, Murray and the Oxford Delegates squabbled over editorial guidelines and the details of his contract. Although it took several years, Murray was finally granted the position of editor in 1879.

James A.H. Murray, circa 1880
James A.H. Murray, circa 1880
For years, Murray and his staff worked diligently on the dictionary, sorting and categorizing as many as 1,000 quotation slips a day. It took approximately nine years to complete the first volume ending with the letter B, which was published in 1888. In recognition for his work, he earned an honorary doctorate from Durham University. It would be one of many honorary degrees he would receive from scholarly institutions.

In October 1897, Oxford University Delegates held a grand dinner party to honor Murray for 18 years of hard work. His contribution was by any standard a remarkable achievement. Many of those involved in producing the dictionary were present at the dinner, except for one key person.

Over the years, Murray corresponded with one of the projects most prolific contributors, Dr. William Chester Minor. On occasion, Murray would ask Minor for help concerning various words, for which he had difficulty finding appropriate quotes. Time and time again, Minor delivered, often providing more information than expected.

Murray was impressed with Minors accuracy, speed, efficiency and dedication to the job. In fact, according to a BBC article, Broadmoors Word-Finder, Murray considered Minors contribution to be so significant that he could easily have illustrated the last four centuries [of words] from his quotations alone. Consequently, many were surprised when Minor failed to show up at the Oxford English Dictionarys whos who event of the decade celebrating their most esteemed editor, James Murray. Only Murray knew the reason why Minor was unable to come to the event.

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