An Unpayable Debt

In the early days of my teaching career, my friend and colleague Phil Mahaffey and I had many conversations about how to make our students write better.  Phil always made the point that we, as teachers, had an advantage over most of those we were trying to help.  Unlike our students, we were, he said, “immersed in words.”  He was right, of course.  In those days, all of us were constantly reading, scavenging books from wherever we could find them. If on some days the choice was between eating and buying a book, well, we’d buy the book and skip the meal.  Books were food enough.

The task, then, was to find ways of helping our students build boats sturdy enough to sail on the sea of words by themselves.  We succeeded with some students; perhaps less well with others; but if you build enough boats, sooner or later, you become interested in the sea itself, and where it comes from.

I was enormously lucky to find Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary (1977) in the early 1980s, just a few years after it was published.  There have been a couple of well-known books about dictionaries and the OED published since this one: Jonathon Green’s Chasing the Sun (1996), which traces the history of dictionary-making since ancient times; and Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman (1998), which enlarges upon the life and circumstances of the OED‘s most frequent public contributor, W.C. Minor; but for the story of the OED itself, the sourcebook of all those who read and write and think in English, it is Caught in the Web of Words, written by Murray’s granddaughter, Elisabeth, to which you must turn.

You’ll notice that I have linked to the hardbound edition of the book, for that is the edition I read. The book I held in my hands years ago was a lovely thing: excellent paper that would not age; a font that was easy on the eyes; and a black binding that would allow the book to be opened comfortably so that it could be read from any angle.  It was not a perfect book, or an elegant one in the sense of being a fine example of the bookmaker’s art, but I remember thinking to myself as I was reading it that the book would stand as a quiet yet solid tribute to the Dictionary and its maker.

Caught in the Web of Words is one of the finest biographies I’ve ever read.  Murray traces the life of her grandfather, James, from his earliest fascination with words as a child to his first, unsuccessful attempts to be a lexicographer, to his eventual hiring as the editor of the OED, and the great, unending train of labor that followed from 1879 to Murray’s death in 1915.  Elisabeth Murray makes it clear that her grandfather and his life’s work came together at exactly the right moment: the OED could not have been begun before Murray arrived because the preparatory work (mostly by F.J. Furnival and Walter Skeat) was inadequate.  It could not have been done after 1915 because, by then, the English language had grown beyond the abilities of just a few men and women to keep up with.  As it was, the work–even with the right man guiding it–very nearly wasn’t finished.

The idea was to produce a dictionary of six pages for every one of Webster’s American.  This was thought (by those who weren’t doing the work) to be an adequate amount of space to define a word, trace its history in the language, and illustrate its meaning by citing quotations.  But it wasn’t an adequate amount of space.  There is no way it could have been, even if Murray had sacrificed the definitions of some technical terms, as he refused to do.  At one point, the pace of production was 33 words per day, an impossible task, considering the difficulties of defining words like set and black and do, which took up days of work in themselves.  In the end, Murray invited the delegates of the Oxford University Press to produce a specimen of 6 to 1 work equal to his own.  They couldn’t do it.  After that, the delegates left him and his workers alone to produce a dictionary with a ratio roughly 8 to 1 of Webster’s.

Murray did not live to see his life’s work completed.  He could not have, for a dictionary is a living, breathing thing.  It changes and grows just as we do, but it will outlive all of us.  Nonetheless, Murray’s output is staggering: 7207 pages out of the OED‘s 15,487 are Murray’s work alone, all done by hand.  I used to take my students over to the library’s reference room and have them leaf through a volume of the dictionary while I told them Murray’s story.  To get all of that story, though, you have to read Elisabeth Murray’s book.  It is probable that her grandfather wouldn’t have approved of anybody doing a biography of him (he didn’t like biographies), but his granddaughter does a splendid job.  Murray’s life stands in for many lives that were lived in Victorian England, and yet it remains singular. Elisabeth Murray is objective about her grandfather in a way that few contemporary biographers are about their subjects today.  She does not hide the fact, for instance, that James A.H. Murray had a martyr’s complex in his personality.  It was the thing that nearly killed him several times, but also the thing that allowed him to see so much of his work through. She reveals his flaws, but there is in Elisabeth Murray’s work admiration for her grandfather’s accomplishments and even a trace of love for him.  She did not know her grandfather well; indeed, the elder Murray did not wish to be known.  He wanted people to know his work.  That alone was important to him.

And that, a biography of the work of its subject, is what Murray has given us.  It is seldom, however, that a man or woman’s work can touch all of our lives so imperceptibly every single day.  It matters not that the OED exists in the contemporary world primarily online and in disc form, and the massive volumes produced long ago remain mostly in libraries.   Today, almost one hundred years after his death, whenever we read a book, a magazine article, or a newspaper, James Murray’s work is the reason why we can read as well as we do.  It was he who showed all of us the sea of words, and built the greatest ship ever built to navigate that sea.  The debt we owe him for his labor is beyond reckoning.


2 thoughts on “An Unpayable Debt

  1. Pingback: Reading In The Cold | Books Here And There

  2. Pingback: Sloane’s Gift | Books Here And There

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