Write on... A man of many words (I)

【明報專訊】People often ask me where words come from. If they mean English words, the answer is that most of them have come to us by way of the man you see pictured here. His name is James Murray. a man from a small village in the south of Scotland. From all indications he was an excellent student, but at the age of fourteen he had to give up his studies when his father could no longer afford to pay the school fees. That proved to be but a minor interruption in the boy's education because three years later he was back at the same school. As a teacher. Three years after that, at the ripe old age of twenty, he became the school's headmaster. In time he married a teacher of music and they moved to London where he found a job in a bank. Soon afterwards they had a child and life seemed to be going along well when, within a couple of years, first his child died and then his wife. Understandably shaken, he wrote a letter to the Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum saying he was interested in finding a challenging position. In the letter, he noted that he had "an intimate acquaintance" with Italian, the French dialects of Catalan, Vaudois and Provencal, and he had "an understanding" of Spanish, Latin, and Portuguese. As an afterthought he added that he was "tolerably familiar" with Dutch, German and Danish, and had "a workable knowledge" of Hebrew, Syriac, and some Aramaic, Arabic, Coptic and Phoenician. As it turned out, the Museum said no, they had no place for a man of so many words.