Thursday, 5 July 2007

Caught in the meaning of everything

James Augustus Henry Murray (1837-1915) - what a guy.

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


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

The first is a long, loving biography by his grand-daughter. Careful and scholarly, and not a fast read - every detail is fascinating. The second is rip-roaring and gripping in its structure and breadth of vision, but is let down by the over fancy prose and long-winded sentences of the sort that the lexicographers - who were, some might say, were true heroes of human endeavour - of the world's greatest dictionary of the world's greatest language would not have wanted to wade through for all their enthusiasm and tenacity....

Murray was one of those nineteenth-century polymaths (botany, loads of languages, archaeology, pedagogy, big family, bank clerk...) who make you ashamed of your narrow interests and piffling qualifications. He also saved the bloated OED project from collapse and carried it through almost to completion, sadly dying a decade before it was published, having devoted almost 50 years to it. And he was a Calvinist - a tall, thin, ginger-haired eccentric Scottish Congregationalist Calvinist, to be precise. These not-terribly-famous but exceedingly culturally-influential Christians - where would we be without them...?