Murray, J. A. H.

James Augustus Henry Murray (1837-1915), chief editor of OED1

J. A. H. Murray. Source: OED archives

Of all those involved with the first edition of the OED, it was James Murray who made the greatest contribution. It has been explored in a masterly account of his life and work by his granddaughter Elisabeth Murray; everyone interested in the Dictionary should read this book, continuously in print since it was first published in 1977.

From 1879, when he became chief editor, until his death 36 years later at the age of 78, Murray devoted his life to the Dictionary. He was personally responsible for ‘more than half of the English vocabulary, comprising all the words beginning with the letters A-D, H-K, O-P, and all but a fraction of those beginning with T’.1 He also provided a model methodology and set the exacting standards that would make the OED the world-renowned resource it is today, in this way ‘revolutioniz[ing] the whole process by which the English language was mapped’, as R. W. Burchfield wrote in his ODNB entry on Murray.2

Murray had no formal philological training, but his lifelong interest in language and etymology developed from an early age. In many respects an autodidact, he left school in Scotland at the age of fourteen and a half (having already begun study of four languages), and soon afterwards recorded on the flyleaf of one of his books, the first issue of John Cassell’s serial publication Popular Educator (1852), the two mottoes ‘Knowledge is power’ and ‘Nihil est melius quam vita diligentissima‘ (nothing is better than a life of utmost diligence). He was to pursue these aims with unremitting consistency and fortitude over the course of his long life.

Murray began his career by training as a teacher, becoming a headmaster in Scotland before moving south for the benefit of his first wife’s health. Here, after a brief spell at the Chartered Bank of India in London, he was appointed schoolmaster at Mill Hill School in 1870. During this time he developed his academic and intellectual interests by continuous further study, chiefly in philological disciplines of one sort or another. He produced several editions for the Early English Text Society and wrote The Dialects of the Southern Counties of Scotland, which was published in 1872. By 1869 he had joined the Philological Society and in 1878 was elected its president.

The Society had been making preparations for a New Dictionary on Historical Principles since Richard Chenevix Trench’s lectures of 1857 (see OED1’s compilation), and the collection and collation of quotations had begun under the editorships of Herbert Coleridge and F. J. Furnivall. On 1 March 1879, after much discussion between the Philological Society and the OUP, Murray was officially appointed editor. He initially retained his job as schoolmaster, and worked on the Dictionary in his spare time, in his ‘scriptorium’, a purpose-built corrugated-iron workroom in his garden. The completed work that he had inherited was inadequate: many quotation slips had been lost or damaged and there was much to be re-done. Moreover, it became clear that the original estimate of a dictionary of 7,000 pages, to be completed in ten years, was unrealizable and that it was essential that Murray should devote himself to the task of editor full-time. He therefore resigned his job as schoolmaster and moved with his family to Oxford (to 78 Banbury Road) in 1885 where he built another scriptorium in his garden.

Murray family group: James and Ada Murray with their eleven children, perhaps 1896. Left to right, standing: Aelfric, Wilfrid, Oswyn, Elsie; seated: Hilda, Harold, James, Ada, Ethelbert, Ethelwyn; front row: Jowett, Gwyneth, Rosfrith. Compare the similar group in K. M. E. Murray 1977: 316, which Elisabeth Murray dates around 1892. The children here are visibly older, perhaps making it close to the last time the whole family managed to meet together, Christmas 1896 (three of the children emigrated to South Africa between 1897 and 1902). We thank Peter Gilliver for help with identification. Photo source: OED archives

Murray worked sometimes ninety hours a week and wrote on average thirty or forty letters a day to correspondents of all kinds (often in time that would have been better spent on the Dictionary itself, as he himself recognized). Though on occasion irritably overwhelmed by the difficulties of his task, he lived a life centred on the happy family domesticity provided by his second wife Ada (whom he married in 1867) and their eleven children, all of whom were pressed into service sorting quotation slips when young. (Hilda, Elsie, and Rosfrith made particularly notable contributions as editorial assistants; his eldest son Harold was a prolific reader for the Dictionary.)

This photo was taken on Murray’s last day in his Scriptorium, 10 July 1915. Left to right, seated: Elsie M. R. Murray, James A. H. Murray, Rosfrith A. N. R. Murray; standing: A. J. Maling, F. J. Sweatman, F. A. Yockney. Source: OED archives

He conceived of the dictionary as a national project, a co-operative effort, saying, in 1900, ‘The English Dictionary, like the English Constitution, is the creation of no one man, and of no one age; it is a growth that has slowly developed itself adown the ages’ (see Literature and the nation). Yet, while he saw it as a cumulative evolutionary process, Murray recognized the leap forward that had been taken in his own time: ‘It can be maintained that in the Oxford Dictionary, permeated as it is through and through with the scientific method of the century, Lexicography has for the present reached its supreme development’ (Murray 1900: 6-7, 49; see our page on 19th-century historical lexicography).

Murray’s posthumous influence was strong: succeeding lexicographers inherited not only his uncompromising scholarly standards but also his habit of entrenchment against the publishers, inevitably if reluctantly alternated with capitulation and co-operation. He left three co-editors to carry his work forward – Henry Bradley, W. A. Craigie and C. T. Onions – together with a staff of well-trained and devoted workers, three of whom subsequently worked on the first Supplement (A. T. Maling, F. J. Sweatman, and his daughter Rosfrith Murray).

Last updated on 18 October 2019


  1. The Periodical, 15 September 1915, p. 198: reproduced here.
  2. See full text at [accessed 30 August 2018]; subscription required.