First instalment of Murray Scriptorium published

Letter box outside Murray's home with blue plaque

Professor Charlotte Brewer (Hertford College) and Dr Stephen Turton (Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge) have just published the first instalment of the Murray Scriptorium.  This pilot online edition of 88 letters sent to and from Sir James Murray, editor-in-chief of the first edition of the OED (1884-1928), illustrates the range of Murray’s correspondents, from prime ministers (William Gladstone) and distinguished writers of the day (George Eliot, Thomas Hardy), through subject experts and academics both professional and amateur, to ordinary men and women.

Often it is the unknown recipients of letters, ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, who elicit Murray’s most interesting replies - fortunately for us, he often drafted or made copies of his letters before posting them. For example, to an inquirer on correct pronunciation, Murray wrote, ‘We do not all think alike, walk alike, dress alike, write alike, or dine alike; why should not we use our liberty in speech also, as long as the purpose of speech, to be intelligible, and its grace, are not interfered with?’

Murray was not always consistent in such responses, as explored in an editorial commentary on his treatment of ‘correct’ English’. Further commentaries discuss a selection of other issues confronting him as he tackled English around the world, obscene vocabulary, and literary vocabulary, as well as the role played by women both in making the dictionary and as sources for the chronologically ordered quotations which accompany almost every one of its printed entries.

Most of the letters in this initial stage of the Murray Scriptorium are held by the Bodleian, part of a huge collection of family papers donated to the library in 1996 by Elisabeth Murray, the editor’s granddaughter, author of the best-selling biography of Murray, Caught in the Web of Words (1977). Others have been transcribed from the other main holding of his letters, at Oxford University Press, which employed Murray as chief editor of the OED from 1879 till his death in 1915 (when he was part-way through editing the letter T), as well as from smaller collections in public or private ownership. Later instalments in the project will represent both archives more fully, as well as those further afield – at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, which holds around 70 letters Murray wrote to the philologist Paul Meyer in search of the French origins of English words, in the Netherlands, where lexicographers were engaged on a similar national dictionary project, and in South Africa, the US, and elsewhere. 

Browse the Murray Scriptorium.