The NY Times Sunday Book Review includes a William F. Buckley review of Simon Winchester’s new book about the OED, The Meaning of Everything. It’s worth reading both for the tidbits (Cambridge turned the dictionary down—”the largest wrong decision in publishing history”) and Buckley’s prose (pleasant if hardly vigorous), but I’m citing it here for James Murray‘s letter of application to the British Museum Library, which had turned him down ten years before the Philological Society of London began looking for a dictionary editor in 1875:

I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and special, has been my favourite pursuit during the whole of my life, and I possess a general acquaintance with the languages & literature of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes—not indeed to say that I am familiar with all or nearly all of these, but that I possess that general lexical & structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge only a matter of a little application. With several I have a more intimate acquaintance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a lesser degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provencal, & various dialects. In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, German, French & occasionally other languages), Flemish, German, Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works for publication upon these languages. I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of the Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian Cuneiform, & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew and Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic Arabic, Coptic and Phenician to the point where it is left by Genesius.

Genesius (the name of a tenth-century Byzantine historian) is a mistake for Gesenius; doubtless that is why Murray didn’t get the job. Well, that or his lack of a college degree. At any rate, it all turned out well in the end.


  1. As I remember it, Murray had a college degree: a BA. I could be wrong though; I’ll have to look it up in his granddaughter’s bio tonight.

  2. From the Buckley review: “There was the itchy problem of the absent college degree. So it was discreetly arranged, by an advocate of Murray among the Philological Society’s members, that he receive one, an honorary LL.D. from Scotland.”

  3. Since I work for Oxford University Press, I had the happy fortune on Friday to spend the day with Simon Winchester as we worked as part of a team on another project. I hadn’t read the new book yet, but he signed a copy and gave it over and I read it over the weekend. He’s every bit what you see in his writing: erudite, witty, sly, ribald, and a pleasant rogue. It’s a better book than “The Madman and the Professor,” but for a more academic look at the OED, history and all, I would recommend “Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the Untrodden Forest,” also an OUP book.
    That’s all I’ll shill today…

  4. When it comes to books like that, you can shill any time. I definitely want to read Lexicography and the OED, and I hope I get to meet Winchester sometime.

  5. LH: I remembered correctly. JAH Murray took a pass BA degree at London in October, 1873. He would’ve done better honors-wise, but his father became ill and he didn’t sit for the part II papers. According to Caught in the Web of Words, pp. 117f. SHortly thereafter he got his LLD. Well, it wasn’t an honors degree, he didn’t get it in his youth, but it was a BA. That’s why I have to disagree with Mr Buckley.

  6. This is a nice reminder that both back then and now, when looking for a job, you need other skills too in addition to languages…

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