James Murray

The Scottish lexicographer James Murray (1837–1915) was the principal editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Through his guidance in the compilation of this massive history of the English lexicon, he exerted a major influence on how dictionaries would be compiled and constructed.

James Murray

Art Collection 3/Alamy Stock Photo

Learned 25 Languages

Murray was born in Denholm, in the southeastern Scottish border region, on February 7, 1837. He was known in later life as James Augustus Henry Murray, taking two middle names in order to avoid confusion on the part of postal services with another James Murray living in Oxford. Murray's father, Thomas, was a tailor, and his mother, Mary, was the daughter of a linen maker. Although nothing in his background suggested that he would undertake a scholarly career, he quickly showed a talent for languages: at 18 months, he knew his English letters, and as a child, he mastered the Greek alphabet as well as passages in Hebrew and Chinese that he copied from translated Bibles. Murray would eventually gain some competence in 25 languages, including Arabic, Hindi, Tongan, and ancient Gothic.

Locals observed that the young Murray always had a book in his pocket. He cataloged the Latin names of plants he found on his three-mile walk to school. While working on a friend's farm during a cholera outbreak that closed his school, he studied Latin in his spare time. He worked briefly as a tailor and learned how to bind books, but his ambition was to become a teacher. He realized that goal at a small school called the Hawick Academy, where by 1857 he had become headmaster.

At around this time, Murray became interested in the English language as such. He joined a local archaeological society and began researching the Scottish dialects of his region. He also took an elocution course from Alexander Melville Bell and later became friends with Bell's son, Alexander Graham Bell. Murray built the younger Alexander a small battery, inspiring him to experiment with sound and its electronic transmission, and Bell would later call Murray the grandfather of the telephone. He married a teacher, Maggie Scott, who suffered from tuberculosis. After the couple moved south to London, hoping that the milder climate would improve her health, Murray took a job as a bank clerk. After Maggie died in 1865, Murray remained in London, doing research at the British Museum and making contact with the city's community of linguistics specialists.

Wore Academic Cap Daily

In 1870 Murray returned to teaching, becoming the schoolmaster at Mill Hill School northwest of London. During these years he wrote numerous academic papers and book reviews, founded a local natural history society, and encouraged his students to catalog all the local four-footed creatures they could find. He also studied for a long-distance degree from the University of London, which he received in 1873. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland the following year; he proudly wore a cap and gown on that occasion and would wear the mortarboard to work for the rest of his life. Murray married his second wife, Ada Agnes Ruthven, in 1867, with Alexander Graham Bell serving as best man. Compounding his future duties were the 11 children he and Ada had between 1868 and 1888. Murray encouraged his children to write, and they published their own magazines and formed a debating society.

In 1879 the society came to an agreement with Oxford University Press for the dictionary's eventual publication. After consulting with top scholars in the field, the publisher installed Murray as the new editor. Murray continued to teach at Mill Hill, estimating that a 7,000-page dictionary could be finished in ten years. He installed an iron shed in the garden of his home, began moving the collected dictionary materials in, and set to work. He called the shed his Scriptorium; although it was heated by a stove, he and his assistants had to wear coats in winter. Murray eventually developed a case of pleurisy from working long hours in these unhealthful conditions.

Moved Dictionary Materials to Oxford

The editorial materials Murray inherited were in a chaotic state. The quotation slips were stored in sacks or old boxes, one of which was found to contain a dead rat and another a live mouse. Many of these containers were decaying. Furthermore, the field of English university literary studies had been developing rapidly, and many of the quotations needed to be altered or supplanted as new editions of English classics were published. By 1884 only the first volume, covering words from A to Ant, had been issued. After volume two, “Ant–Batten,” followed in 1885, Murray moved his family to a house in Oxford and installed a similarly bare-bones Scriptorium there. Repeatedly he fended off inquiries from Oxford University Press as to when the dictionary would be completed.

Between 1885 and 1915, Murray worked almost ceaselessly on the dictionary, often arriving in the Scriptorium at 6 a.m. and taking minimal meal breaks before leaving for the night at 11 p.m. Some of his children worked with him. Even after assistant editors were hired, he took only one extended vacation, traveling to Britain's Cape Colony (now part of South Africa) to receive an honorary degree from the University of Cape Town. He did enjoy shorter jaunts, however, taking breaks to hike with family and friends in England as well as in the Swiss Alps. Murray grew a distinctive red beard that turned a distinguished white as he aged. During an Alpine hike one August, he and a local guide were caught in waistdeep snow but pressed on to the summit. On descending, Murray found that his beard had frozen solid into a giant blue icicle that had to be broken with a carpenter's hammer.

A Monumental Resource

The OED as it developed under Murray's editorship was different from previous dictionaries. Its historical orientation—its aim to be as much a study of the English language as a resource for word definitions—was novel, as was the strategy of crowd-sourcing the quotations used to show the histories and usages of individual words. Moreover, Murray's format for the definitions themselves was unusual: instead of listing the main definition of a word first, he placed its earliest definition at the top so that readers could see how the meaning of the word evolved over time. A popular lecturer both as a schoolteacher and as a community figure, he often gave lectures on lexicography in his later years.

Even while suffering from a variety of health problems, Murray remained an indefatigable worker on the dictionary almost until his last days; at age 78, he completed the volume “Trink–Turn-down” on schedule despite severe illness. He was knighted in 1908 and received honorary degrees from Cambridge and Oxford universities in 1913 and 1914, respectively.

After Murray died in Oxford on July 26, 1915, editing work continued under the stewardship of Henry Bradley, W.A. Craigie, and C.T. Onions. The 16,000-page OED appeared in full in 1928, and supplements were incorporated as required between 1933 and 1986. A second edition, the OED 2, was published in 1989 and incorporated all previous supplements, and the dictionary now exists online, allowing it to remain up-to-date as the English language adapts to continually changing times.


Murray, K.M. Elisabeth, Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, Yale University Press, 1977.

Winchester, Simon, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2003.


Guardian (London, England), May 14, 1991, Brian Keaney and Bill Lucas, “Education: A Short History of Dictionaries,” p. 6.


Oxford Dictionaries, https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/02/07/james-murray/ (July 2, 2013), “Dr. Murray, Oxford: A Remarkable Editor.”

Oxford English Dictionary online, http://www.oed.com/ (December 30, 2017).□

(MLA 8th Edition)