Tom McArthur obituary

My father, Tom McArthur, who has died aged 81, was a world-renowned scholar in the field of English language studies whose crowning achievement was his editorship of The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992).

His work on that book was certainly a labour of love; five years in the making, its encyclopaedic survey of the English language ran to more than 1,200 pages and drew upon the work of 95 contributors and 70 consultants. It was hailed by John Ezard of the Guardian as “a new leviathan of accessible scholarship” and became a bestseller.

For nearly a quarter of a century Tom also edited English Today, an academic journal on the English language. Launched in 1985, it featured a wide range of well-known writers, and was celebrated for encouraging contributions by up-and-coming scholars.

Tom was born in Glasgow, the younger son of Archibald McArthur, a postman, and his wife, Margaret (nee Burns). He attended Woodside senior school in Kelvinside before going to the University of Glasgow. After graduating with an MA in 1958 he did three years of national service in the Royal Army Educational Corps. In 1961 he became a full-time secondary school teacher in Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire, as well as a part-time reporter for the local newspaper.

During that time he met Feri Mottahedin, at a Baha’i gathering in Newcastle. In 1963 they married and soon afterwards moved to India, where Tom taught at the Cathedral school in Bombay and continued his part-time journalism.

When Tom and Feri returned to Scotland, he became a lecturer at Edinburgh University, completing his PhD in the department of linguistics. In 1979 he accepted a position as professor of English at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières in Canada. There he worked extensively with the publishers Collins and Longman on a number of publications, most notably the Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English (1981), a groundbreaking thematic dictionary that remained in print for 22 years.

In 1983 he returned to the UK to edit English Today and to write a number of books including Worlds of Reference (1986). He collaborated with the linguist David Crystal on a BBC radio series entitled The Story of English and also worked for many years with the Dictionary Research Centre at the University of Exeter.

After Feri died in 1993, he met Jacqueline Lam. They married in 2001 and he moved to Hong Kong to join her there, working at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University, as well as Xiamen University in Fujian, China. His most recent works included the Oxford Guide to World English (2002) and a second edition of The Oxford Companion to the English Language (2018), which he edited with Lise Fontaine and Jacqueline.

Tom was endlessly curious about the world, effortlessly witty, a colourful storyteller and an invaluable search engine long before Google existed.

He is survived by Jacqueline, his children from his first marriage, Meher, Alan and me, and two grandchildren, Kaia and Theo.

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