Every great library begins in the heart of someone with at least three heroic loves: a love for words, a love for truth, and a love for future generations. Libraries begin as a collection of beloved books, but those books generate a love for words, as well—without that, books are mere antiquarian or decorative curiosities.
Perhaps the greatest etymologist of all time—and thus, one of the most passionate lovers of words—was James Murray (1837-1915), a self-educated Scots country boy who was the original editor of the monumental Oxford English Dictionary.
The dictionary was a mind-bogglingly huge undertaking which practically consumed his life—it documented every single word in the English language, past and present, as well as every possible usage from formal to colloquial. Thus, tens of thousands of entries had to be carefully researched. The etymology of every word was traced. Examples of the use of the word were drawn from the best prose and poetry extant. And it all was arranged and catalogued in as functional and usable fashion as possible.
Murray was precise with every detail of the Herculean task at hand. His granddaughter later described how he would illumine visitors to his cluttered study as to the vital character of his work—understanding full well the seed truth about language and the precision inherent in the transferal of truth, first foretold in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
Thus, Elisabeth Murray wrote, “As he showed the guests round, Dr. Murray would give examples of the unique feature of the dictionary, the application of the historical method. His task was to trace the life history both of every English word now in use and of all those known to have been in use at any time during the last seven hundred years. His starting point was in 1150, and the early history, variations of sense and form of every word current at that date, was to be given in the same detail as the changes which took place in succeeding centuries. In this he was applying the historical principle much more completely than had been attempted in any country. Although James knew that there would be additions and changes in English vocabulary in future ages, he would stress that, every fact faithfully recorded, and every inference correctly drawn from the facts, becomes a permanent accession to human knowledge part of eternal truth, which will never cease to be true.”
It was in 1859, when he was merely 22 years old, that Murray first conceived of the great work—but it would on this day two decades later before he could win the confidence of the Philological Society to actually begin the work. Alas, he died before the work was completed. Nevertheless, the organization he put together ensured that the work was indeed published in 1928.