The legacy of Tom McArthur

Tom McArthur was born in the city of Glasgow, Scotland, and studied at the University of Glasgow (MA) and University of Edinburgh (PhD). He had a rich international career, starting as an officer-instructor in the British Army, and subsequently as Head of English at the Cathedral School in Bombay (Mumbai), lecturer and Director of Studies at Extra Mural English Language Courses at the University of Edinburgh, Associate Professor of English at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and Visiting Professor at the University of Exeter’s Dictionary Research Centre, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Lingnan University, and Xiamen University.

Tom was a world-renowned linguist, fluent in English, Scots and French, with an academic knowledge of Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit. He could also converse to varying degrees in Spanish, Italian, Greek, Russian, German, Persian/Farsi, and Cantonese. He contributed to the field of linguistics with passion and love for world culture and languages, and shed light in particular on English studies, world Englishes and lexicography.

Contribution to lexicography 

Tom was a lexicographer. He proposed the term ‘reference science’ for works providing lexical, grammatical, encyclopedic and other referential information. Defying the A-Z convention of lexicographic practice, he compiled the thematic dictionary, Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English (1981), complementing Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. The Lexicon is an admixture of cognitive science and reference science, containing over 15,000 entries in 130 topics, from life and animals to war and peace. It illuminates word differences in the same semantic field, such as hotel, motel and inn, and is especially useful for non-native learners of English to enlarge their vocabulary. The book has had 22 printings and has been translated to different languages. Alongside Reinhard Hartmann, Tom co-organized 14 sessions of Interlex (International Lexicography Course) at the Dictionary Research Centre at the University of Exeter from 1987 to 2000. They also initiated training lexicographers in the MA and PhD Lexicography programme from 1993 to 2000. Many of their students became practicing lexicographers or university professors in different parts of the world. 

Contribution to English language research and education

Tom was an inspiring professor, doing independent academic research. His doctoral thesis was entitled The English Word? and his study into the English language covers a wide range of topics, including lexis, syntax, phonetics and sociolinguistics. He was the founding editor of the journal English Today, by Cambridge University Press, leading it from 1985 to 2008, and a walking encyclopedia recharging students with not only linguistic knowledge but also culture and history. With English teachers and learners in mind, his books were wittily written and easy to engage with. The peak of his linguistic achievements was in the editorship of The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992), which constitutes an immense, complex and detailed survey of the English language, including extensive facts and sharp opinions from scholars worldwide, describing local, regional and international usages of the language in detail and illustrating standard and non-standard varieties of English that present readers with a full picture of the world lingua franca. Another masterpiece Tom took much pride in was The Oxford Guide to World English (2003), which exemplifies how English has been used all over the world by more non-native than native speakers – a stark comparison with Latin in the Middle Ages.

Close link to Asia

Tom was a global citizen, interested in different languages and cultures, with a particular interest in Asia, an early proof being his condensed translation from Sanskrit of An Easy-to-Read Bhagavad Gita that appeared in 1978. He worked in India, loved Singapore and lived in Hong Kong, was one of the founders of the Asian Association for Lexicography in 1997 (together with Gregory James and Reinhard Hartmann) and participated in the Asialex conferences of 2003 in Japan and 2005 in Singapore.

 Inspiring and sharing world ideas

Tom was a great tutor. He never gave up the thought of nurturing young teachers. While working as the editor of English Today, he created a hub bringing together famous experts as well as young scholars worldwide, presenting a comprehensive picture of English yesterday, English today and English tomorrow. His enlightened thinking, open-mindedness, consideration, generosity and encouragement stimulated many minds. He will be remembered forever.

Lan Li was a student of Tom McArthur at the University of Exeter. Currently she is Director of the Centre for Learning Enhancement and Research and an Associate Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen) and Review Editor of Lexicography – Journal of Asialex.