“Every Step of My Life”: James Murray’s Grasp of Reality

A friend recently passed on to me this fabulous quote from Simon Winchester’s life of James Murray [The Meaning of Everything, p.135, from Peter Sutcliffe, The Oxford University Press, An Informal History (1978), no page given], who was one of the editors of the standard of our beloved English language, The Oxford English Dictionary. Here is the quote: “Murray was sustained for the rest of his life by an illusion that time, however quickly it ran out, was on his side. For a moment in history the language had paused and come to a rest. It could be seized and captured forever.”

This statement was made in light of the following extract from a letter that Murray wrote to Lord Bryce on December 15, 1903. Murray was sixty-six at the time:

“I think it was God’s will. In times of faith, I am sure of it. I look back & see that every step of my life has been as it were imposed upon me—not a thing of choice; and that the whole training of my life with its multifarious & irregular incursions into nearly every science & many arts, seems to have had the express purpose of fitting me to do this Dictionary …So I work on with a firm belief (at most times) that I am doing what God has fitted me for, & so made my duty; & I hope that He will strengthen me to see the end of it …But I am only an instrument, only the means that He has provided, & there is no credit due to me, except that of trying to do my duty; Deo soli Gloria.”