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· Teacher, Scholar, Father — Sir James's Modest Accomplishments ·

I've come this Father's Day to the end of another academic year. Submitting grades after attending a relative's graduation party Saturday and watching graduates receive their degrees Friday night, I had earlier been grading essays, giving finals, and tidying my office. But more memorable still has been some reading in Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (2003), especially about James Murray, the famous teacher-scholar-father alluded to above.

Murray was, you should know, at fourteen a Scottish school dropout who, by life's end, at last received the coveted Oxford D. Litt. (honorus causa) he so surely deserved. Since my relative is now starting a new well-paying job, consider England's most famous lexicographer's job application — at age twenty-nine — to the British Museum library. His letter is not bad for an autodidact's:

I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and special, has been my favourite pursuit during the whole of my life, and that I possess a general acquaintance with the languages and literature of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes — not indeed to say that I am familiar with all or nearly all of these, but that I posses that general lexical & structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge only a matter of a little application. With several I have a more intimate acquantance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a less degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal & various dialects. In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, German, French & occasionally other languages), Flemish, German and Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works for publication upon these languages. I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian Cuneiform, & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew & Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic, Arabic, Coptic and Phenecian to the point where it was left by Gesenius. As quoted in Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford UP, 72-73.

As Winchester adds dryly, "Murray's application was not successful," but as he also avers, by life's end Murray's children's quite stellar careers had compensated him well for his bumpy start. Here is his third son Wilfrid's rightly matter-of-fact account:

Harold, the oldest son, Exhibitioner and First Class Graduate of Balliol, was author of the Oxford History of Chess (1913) and, at the time of his retirement, a Divisional Inspector under the Board of Education. Sir Oswyn, GBC, the fourth son, Scholar, triple First and Honorary Fellow of Exeter and Vinerian Law Scholar, was Secretary to the Board of Admiralty from 1917 until his death in 1936; Jowettt, the youngest, was a Scholar and Triple First of Magdalen and became a Professor in the Anglo-Chinese College at Tientsin; the second, Ethelbert, was at his death in 1916 Electrical Engineer for North London in Willesden; the fifth, Aelfric (Wadham College), took orders and became Vicar of Bishop Burton; the writer, also a Balliol Exhibitioner, was for 21 years Registrar of the University of Cape Town. Of the five daughters Hilda, the eldest, was First Class Honours student at Oxford, Lecturer in English at Cambridge and Vice-Mistress of Girton College and has publish several works; the second, Ethelwyn (Mrs. C. W. Cousins) was married to the Secretary for Labour of the Union of South Africa; the youngest, Gwyneth, (Mrs. H. Logan), a Girton First Class graduate, was married to a Canadian Rhodes Scholar who became Principal of the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School in British Columbia; the remaining two, Elsie (Mrs. A. Barling) and Rosfrith, were both valued assistants for long periods on the Dictionary staff. From Wilfrid G. R. Murrary, Murray the Dictionary-Maker, Cape Town: Rustica Press, 1943, as quoted in Winchester, 80-81.

Apparently they don't make Victorian fathers like they used to, but lest you think Murray took any undue credit, consider Murray's take on his great philological work — in a quaint, modest style we're too apt to sneer at nowadays:

I think it was God's will. In times of faith, I am sure of it. I look back & see that every step of my life has been as it were imposed upon me — not a thing of choice; and that the whole training of my life with its multifarious & irregular incursions into nearly every science and many arts, seems to have had the express purpose of fitting me to do this Dictionary . . . So I work on with a firm belief (at most times) that I am doing what God has fitted me for, & so made my duty; & hope that He will strengthen me to see the end of it . . . But I am only an instrument, only the means that He has provided & there is no credit due to me, except that of trying to do my duty; Deo soli gloria. From a letter to the politician Lord Bryce, 15 December 1903, as quoted in Winchester, 134.

Naturally, Murray's saving grace could be strictly parenthetical, but it's quite apt — for all times, I think — to induce some needed "fear and trembling."

Of course, I say this for all those still working on degrees.

 · The Mortarboard is Honorary ·

For a more extended take on Murray's work, you might also read James Murray and The Oxford English Dictionary.



As a 4th-generation decendant of Sir James Murray, I am trying to track his son's (Oswyn) book Murray the Dictionary Maker (Wynberg 1943).

Many thanks,


Posted by Ian Murray on October 5, 2005 11:58 PM

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