James Murray Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

James Murray 1837-1915

(Born James Augustus Henry Murray) Scottish linguist, philologist and lexicographer.

Murray holds a unique place in the history of the English language. He was the principal editor of a vast dictionary recording historical usage of English words dating back to the mid-twelfth century and beyond. This work became the Oxford English Dictionary, the most authoritative text extant on the English language. In addition to this decades-long project, which he had not yet completed on his death, Murray published several works exploring the development and different dialects within English. Himself holding only honorary university degrees, Murray was primarily responsible for the acceptance of modern language studies as part of the university curriculum.

Biographical Information

Murray was born on February 7, 1837, in Denholm, Scotland. The son of a linen manufacturer, Murray was largely self-educated. Adept at learning various languages, Murray had become headmaster of a local academy by the age of twenty-one. He later moved to London on account of his wife's health and took work in a bank. There he met members of the London Philological Society, which had for years been engaged in compiling a new English dictionary. Since the previous editor had died, Murray put forth a new plan for the project, seeking to ground the work in strict principles of historical precedent and accuracy. The project continued to languish for some years. Meanwhile Murray published several works on English usage, development, and dialect, including a famous article for the Encyclopedia Britannica. In 1879, Murray, now president of the Philological Society and master at the Mill Hill private school, was asked to take over as chief editor of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. In 1884, the first installment appeared. In 1885, having been awarded a pension, Murray moved to Oxford to devote all his energies to the dictionary. He continued this work for the rest of his life, seeing about half the original project (slated to include six volumes of 1400 pages each but still continuing in various supplements) to publication. He was knighted in 1908. Murray died on July 26, 1915.

Major Works

Early in his career Murray wrote a number of short works, which at the time were considered to be important contributions to the scientific study of modern languages and dialects. Once in London Murray turned to the history of languages, editing works for the Early English Text Society. Despite the importance attached to these works at the time by students of the English language, it was as editor of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles that Murray made his lasting contribution to the study of English and other modern languages. The dictionary sought to provide authoritative definitions that were not merely supplemented by, but rather grew out of historical examples drawn from literature. Millions of quotations were compiled and organized to show changes in words' usage over time. The result was an exhaustive history of every word known to have been in use after the year 1150; a compilation that became, on its publication, the standard reference work for all students and scholars of the English language.

Critical Reception

Murray's contributions to the creation of The Oxford English Dictionary are considered to be astounding. He established the standards and editorial models used in the dictionary for years to come. Murray's method of reading quotations to obtain meaning is still used today as one of the principal methods of assembling material for revising the dictionary.