Caught in the Web of Words

Literary scholarship is rarely considered a noble and heroic undertaking; such terms are usually reserved for mountain-climbing, or other equally dangerous activity. But the Oxford English Dictionary is justly termed the greatest dictionary in the language, and the model for other national dictionaries. In over sixteen thousand pages, it chronicles the definitions and first appearances of practically every word in the English language, illustrated with copious quotations from original sources, both literary and subliterary. That it was ever done is miracle enough; that it was done by chiefly voluntary labor in an age before computers and typewriters makes of it a truly monumental achievement. Caught in the Web of Words is the story of the making of that dictionary, told from the perspective of the man chiefly responsible for its appearance.

James A. H. Murray’s labors were truly herculean, carried out at great personal cost and sacrifice. Without his special learning and special determination, the work would never have been done. All who care about the English language are forever in his debt. This is, therefore, the story of a noble and heroic undertaking, the story of a noble and heroic man. It really consists of two parts, an account of Murray’s life in preparation for his work on what is known everywhere as the OED, and a description of the work on the dictionary itself. As his biographer, who is also his granddaughter, makes clear, Murray had no real inkling until it was too late that his great life’s work would be the OED, but even if he had, he could not have gone about preparing for it in any better way. Murray was, in some ways, an unlikely candidate for the job. He lacked formal university training, a situation which made entry into the scholarly life difficult in the class-conscious world of Victorian England. But precisely because he was largely self-taught, precisely because he had to seek out opportunities for learning in his relatively isolated early years on the Scottish border, Murray developed qualities of determination and high standards of excellence which were invaluable when the chance to do the dictionary actually came his way.

That the dictionary was done at all, Elisabeth Murray points out, resulted from the unique coming together of several disparate circumstances. Even late in the nineteenth century, English university education was dominated by the study of the classics; study of English language and literature was left, for the most part, to learned and devoted amateurs who gave to it the time they could spare from their other careers. They therefore had the sort of ambition and drive that only the amateur can have. Willing to take on projects simply to prove the value of their interests to all the world, the founders of the Philological Society and the Early English Text Society, and especially their leader, Frederick Furnivall, came to believe that the production of a grand dictionary of the English language would prove their point about the value of vernacular literary study and support their other work in the editing and study of early English literature. At the same time, since no one had ever undertaken a project of such magnitude, the task seemed manageable; in fact, Murray, when he became editor, projected the work would be done in a mere ten years. Nevertheless, the tools were at hand, since the prior work of the Early English Text Society had made generally available a large number of heretofore rare and unusual sources for much of the historical evidence used in the dictionary.

In 1879, two further elements fell into place, and the project was duly launched. The first was the publisher; the Oxford University Press agreed to provide salaries and expense money in advance for a dictionary, to be seven thousand pages long and completed in ten years. The second was the editor; James Murray, formerly a schoolteacher and bank clerk and now a Master at Mill Hill School, agreed to take charge of the dictionary project. That the final product was not complete until fifty-four years later, and that it ran to over sixteen thousand pages, is some indication of how greatly its originators underestimated the magnitude of their task.

Three elements of this biography support its special and highly memorable retelling of the story of the OED. The first is the detailed portrait of James Murray himself, from his childhood and early education through his years of young adulthood through the early years of labor to support his growing family and the great sweep of years at work on the dictionary itself. The second is the description of...

(The entire section is 1899 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Economist. CCLXIV, September 24, 1977, p. 140.

New Republic. CLXXVII, November 12, 1977, p. 33.

New York Times. October 19, 1977, p. 29.

New York Times Book Review. October 30, 1977, p. 13.

New Yorker. LIII, November 21, 1977, p. 222.

Newsweek. XC, November 7, 1977, p. 98.

Saturday Review. V, November 12, 1977, p. 30.