2. Caught in the Web of Words

In which we learn from a Scot who loved English

His is both an inspiring and dispiriting tale.

Inspiring, because it shows what can happen when you have a dream and the determination to make it into a reality.

Dispiriting, because his story shows us the scale of the Everest we have to climb if we wish to learn a language perfectly. Thankfully, we don’t. Not yet, anyway. We want to start by speaking a language badly. And we badly want to speak a language.

Growing up in the Scottish Borders, the young James Murray became fascinated with language and dialect, and he had a dream – to record every word that exists in the English language. He had no idea what he was taking on.

As the magnitude of the task dawned on him, he organised an ingenious system of readers who sent in words noted down on pieces of paper with the various shades of meaning, appropriate quotations and suggested etymology. From his scriptorium in Mill Hill, in what is now North London, Murray spent decades painstakingly compiling and collating these notes to make what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). His daughter wrote a book to tell the story: Caught in the Web of Words. Inspiring.

But also dispiriting. Murray died before he reached the letter S.

In this chapter we are going to discuss four tools to help you acquire the relatively few words you need to communicate effectively in another language: word association – which we touched on in chapter one; a good dictionary; mind maps; and flash cards. And we hope that, unlike Murray, you make it right to the end.



  • James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary

  • Active and passive vocabulary

  • Learning the most important words

  • Word lists and word frequency

  • Basic English

  • Two more tools and how to use them properly: mind maps and flash cards

This is an extract from our must-read book about language learning, THE LANGUAGE SECRET. Browse the site for more extracts from the other chapters and information about what they contain. You can also purchase a copy of the book by clicking on the button at the bottom of the page.