Today in Literary History – February 7, 1837 – Sir James Murray, creator of the Oxford English Dictionary, is born

Sir James Murray, the Scottish lexicographer who was the creator of the Oxford English Dictionary, was born on February 7, 1837. He lived and breathed the dictionary project from 1879 when he became its editor until his death in 1915. The complete version of the OED was not finished until 1928.

Murray was a mostly self-taught etymologist, philologist and teacher who was fluent in dozens of languages and dialects. However, he didn’t have a graduate degree.

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The University of Oxford Press had taken over a massive project to publish a multi-volume dictionary of all of the words in the English language, which other publishers had despaired of. The venture had been faltering for years due to lack of dedicated leadership and vision.

Despite Murray’s inadequate academic credentials the University could see the characteristics in him that the undertaking needed to be a success.

Murray inherited 3,600 pounds worth of slips of paper with words and definitions on them that had been gathered by previous editors over the past 20 years. Murray turned his garden shed into what he called his “Scriptorium” and set about sorting all the words into hundreds of cubby holes.

He eventually moved to Oxford, built a larger Scriptorium and began with a team of assistants and volunteers to compile the first volume of the dictionary, A-B.

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After nine years of hard work, A-B was finally published in 1888. Volumes C and D came out in 1892, D and F in 1896, and so on until the First World War slowed production down by taking many of Murray’s Oxford clerks and volunteers. The last volume that Murray worked on was P.

Murray had eleven children, all of whom survived to adulthood and who helped him file and compile. He also had a vast network of volunteers who tracked down the historical quotations Murray used to capture each word’s first printed appearance and how its usage changed over the centuries, the OED’s (and Murray’s) greatest achievement.

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Murray with his wife and children

Murray’s massive undertaking was originally envisaged in 1879 to take 10 years to complete and end up with four volumes.

By the time it was completed, nearly 50 years later in 1928, it had expanded to 12 volumes with 414,825 words defined and 1,827,306 citations demonstrating their meanings and usage — a monumental achievement that probably would never have come about without Murray’s drive and devotion.

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