James Murray: More than just a Mad Man

Since his death in 1915, James Murray has been described as imaginative, honest, optimistic, unworldly, given to feelings of inferiority or even martyrdom, a determined academic, prone to complaining, having a volatile temper, and devoted to his family. Being all of these at once would most likely be impossible, but the range of descriptions proves that if nothing else, Murray was a complex, brilliant man.

He was born in a small village in Scotland in 1837 to an extremely poor family. By the time he was fourteen, he had reached the end of free public education, and since his parents were unable to pay for tuition at grammar school, he was forced to go to work as a tailor, his father’s trade. However, most of his education had always been self-taught, and he kept reading in his free time. His main interest was in languages, and he studied them in depth, starting with English, Anglo-Saxon and German, and moving on to the Romance languages. Throughout his lifetime, he would learn a total of twenty-five languages, several of them obscure (like Latin, Meso-Gothic and Vaudois) or ancient (such as Aramaic, Syriac and Phoenician).

At seventeen, he decided to get back into academia as an assistant schoolteacher, and three years later he was offered a position as headmaster of a nearby school. After he married and his wife contracted TB, they were told to live in London because of the warmer climate. Murray left academia again to be a bank clerk, but he still learned more about languages as he communicated with foreign banks at work. London apparently did little for his wife, who died after a year there, but Murray was engaged again a year later, to a woman with whom he eventually had eleven children.

Since the main draw of the job as a bank clerk was the good salary, which after awhile Murray no longer desperately needed, he quit again and went back to teaching. He also joined the Philological Society, a group of language enthusiasts who started to put together an abridged dictionary. Murray helped to work on it for three years before the Society and Oxford University decided they wanted to create a comprehensive, unabridged dictionary, which had never been attempted before. Murray was asked to be its editor, and he agreed, thinking that the project would take about ten years and be seven thousand pages long.

Murray's house in Oxford; the Scriptorium was built in the backyard

It ended up being his longest-running job and, ultimately, his life’s work. He worked on it until he died, thirty-five years in total, and he wrote 7,207 pages of the Oxford English Dictionary (out of what would, many years and three editors later, be a total of 15,487). Along with a small staff, including his children, who were set to work on the project as soon as they could read, Murray compiled the entries and word-usage quotations in his Scriptorium, which was just a shed on the lawn of the school where he taught, and after he quit his teaching job he moved the operation to a shed in his backyard in Oxford.

Over time, old age, bad health and the pressure of the enormous project still failed to keep Murray from working on the dictionary. He had been chosen for the editorship because of his focus and determination– he never smoked or drank, never went to the theatre and disliked music, preferring to study languages for fun– and that determination persisted until his death of pleurisy in 1915.

The Theatre @ Boston Court’s next play, The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder, focuses on Murray and his staff, including his children, as they go about their daunting work with meticulous care and dark humor. Playwright Moby Pomerance’s take on Murray’s character provides many more insights into this unusual and unusually intelligent man, and the type of people necessary to take on a task so large and historic.

The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder

by Moby Pomerance

Directed by John Langs

Previews begin July 22

Performances through August 29


One response to “James Murray: More than just a Mad Man

  1. Pingback: James Murray: More than just a Mad Man (via We Play Different) « Mademoiselle Gramophone

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