05 juli 2012

Murray: aphis en ijsbaard

De eerste druk van de Oxford English Dictionary (12 delen), waaraan is gewerkt van 1857 tot 1928, is een van de fraaiste en beste woordenboeken die ooit zijn gemaakt. Het had nooit tot stand kunnen komen zonder de briljante Schotse lexicograaf James Murray (1837-1915), die het project leidde van 1879 tot zijn dood. Over deze man en zijn onderneming heeft een van zijn kleindochters, K.M. Elisabeth Murray, een unputdownable boek geschreven: Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary (1977). (Het Scriptorium was een speciaal gebouwde ruimte waarin de woordenboekmakers hun werk deden.)
As the Dictionary and its Editor got known the traffic of letters became two-way, almost as many inquiries coming to the Scriptorium as were sent out from it [...]. Early on, James wished to find the origin of the word aphis, first used by Linnaeus for green fly, and he wrote to the Zoological Secretary of the Linnaean Society for help. The Secretary replied ‘I have sent your letter on to the one man who can answer it, Mr So & So, who has written the Monograph on the British Aphides, and I have no doubt he will send you a full answer.’ This was encouraging, but in two days came another letter from a clerical friend in London, marked Immediate, which ran
Dear Dr Murray
Will you send me by return if possible, the etymology of the word Aphis? Dr B. a clergyman in Surrey, a friend of mine, a great Greek scholar, has been asked by a very distinguished naturalist, who lives near him, if he can tell him its derivation. Dr B. has looked up the Greek Lexicon and can get no light on it: but he is very anxious not to admit his failure; he knows that I know you and that you know everything, and he begs me to get the etymology from you to save his reputation as a Greek scholar.

Ofschoon Murray zich met een onvoorstelbare inzet en discipline aan de productie van het woordenboek wijdde, was hij bepaald niet alleen maar een kamergeleerde, maar ook een toegewijd huisvader, en een groot wandelaar en briefschrijver:

Letters written to the family describing the 1904 holiday, which took them to Grenoble and Uriage-les-Bains, are typical of James in holiday mood. He rose every morning at four or five, climbed 3000 feet and came down again before breakfast. One night, when [zijn reisgenoot] Ellis was attending a concert, he reluctantly agreed that James might be absent in order to climb the Pic de la Croix de Belledonne, a peak of 9500 feet in the French alps east of Grenoble. The ascent is usually fairly easy, taking about three hours from the mountain hut at La Pra, where James spent the night. Unfortunately freak weather for August occurred and he arrived at La Pra in snow, which was still falling at four next morning. Local people said snow would not last at that time of year, so he set off with a guide, in what proved to be the worst August storm in living memory. James was invigorated by the experience. ‘It was glorious’, he wrote, ‘[...] wading ankle-deep, sinking knee deep, thigh deep, waste [sic; lees: waist, JE] deep in the loose dry powdery snow.’ At the top there was no view and with a precipice on each side, he clung to the cross so as not to be blown over. Coming down, the snow was deeper, and when they reached the hut people would hardly believe they had been at the summit. ‘But our appearance convinced them’, James continued, 
we were both completely encased with icicles like scale mail. I had a kind of woollen neckerchief with a fringe tied round my face to prevent my ears freezing, and every fringe of this had become an icicle surrounding my face like a crown of thorns. My hair behind under my cap was converted into a circle of icicles, which in the chalet began to melt & run down my neck. But my beard — oh! you should have seen my beardyou have seen Aber Falls frozenthat was nothing to my beardfrozen streams from my whiskers & moustaches flowed into the main beard & coalesced with it into one huge icicle of clear blue ice [...]. They all burst into a great ‘Vivat!’ and ran for a looking glass [...]. I did not know myself in the least [...] it was like a Frost-giant of the Edda [...]. But my beard began to melt [...] and after various unsuccessful efforts to break it away, they brought a block of wood, held it under my chin, and then with a large carpenter’s hammer, hammered away at my beard until they broke the clear blue ice into thousands of fragments.
When he returned to Oxford Ada rushed at him crying, ‘Jamie, Jamie, what have you done with your beard!’ and it was never quite so long afterwards as it had been before.
(K.M. Elisabeth Murray, Caught in the Web of Words [...] (1977), pp. 202, 299, 325-326.)

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