James Augustus Henry Murray

Biography of James Augustus Henry Murray

Sir James Augustus Henry Murray (7 February 1837 – 26 July 1915) was a Scottish lexicographer and philologist. He was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1879 until his death.

Sir James Murray was born in the village of Denholm near Hawick in the Scottish Borders, the eldest son of a draper, Thomas Murray. A precocious child with a voracious appetite for learning, he left school at the age of fourteen because his parents were not able to afford to send him to local fee-paying schools. At the age of seventeen he became a teacher at Hawick Grammar School and three years later was headmaster of the Subscription Academy there. In 1856 he was one of the founders of the Hawick Archaeological Society.

In 1861, Murray met a music teacher, Maggie Scott, whom he married the following year. Two years later, they had a daughter Anna, who shortly after died of tuberculosis. Maggie, too, fell ill with tuberculosis, and on the advice of doctors, the couple moved to London to escape the Scottish winters. Once there, Murray took an administrative job with the Chartered Bank of India, while continuing in his spare time to pursue his many and varied academic interests. Maggie died within a year of arrival in London. A year later Murray was engaged to Ada Agnes Ruthven, and the following year married her.

By this time Murray was primarily interested in languages and etymology. Some idea of the depth and range of his linguistic erudition may be gained from a letter of application he wrote to Thomas Watts, Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum, in which he claimed an ‘intimate acquaintance’ with Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish and Latin, and 'to a lesser degree' Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal & various dialects’. In addition, he was ‘tolerably familiar’ with Dutch, German and Danish. His studies of Anglo-Saxon and Mœso-Gothic had been ‘much closer’, he knew ‘a little of the Celtic’ and was at the time ‘engaged with the Slavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of the Russian’. He had ‘sufficient knowledge of Hebrew & Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito’ and to a lesser degree he knew Aramaic, Arabic, Coptic and Phoenician. However, he did not get the job.

By 1869, Murray was on the Council of the Philological Society, and by 1873 had given up his job at the bank and returned to teaching at Mill Hill School in London. He then published The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland, which served to enhance his reputation in philological circles.

Murray had eleven children with Ada (all having 'Ruthven' in their name, by arrangement with his father-in-law, George Ruthven); the eldest, Harold James Ruthven Murray became a prominent chess historian, and one son Wilfrid George Ruthven Murray wrote an account of his father.

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