Professor Christian J. Kay (1940-2016)

Professor Christian Kay, 2013

Christian J. Kay, Emerita Professor of English Language at the University of Glasgow, died peacefully on 4 June 2016 aged 76. Over the course of her long career she was an exceptional and generous scholar, and a good and close friend to many of her colleagues.

First employed by Glasgow in 1969 to work on the Historical Thesaurus of English in its infancy, Kay was later appointed to a lectureship in the then Department of English Language, being named Director of the Thesaurus in 1989 and promoted to Professor in 1996. In her own words: "I never intended to be an academic. I worked in journalism, English-language teaching and publishing before becoming a research assistant and then a lecturer at Glasgow. The common thread is an interest in language."

Despite retiring in 2005, Christian continued to pursue the completion of the Thesaurus, finally published in 2009 to worldwide acclaim. In 2013, the University awarded her an honorary D.Litt. in recognition of her extraordinary service to the study of the English language.

In addition to being one of the most significant historical linguists of her generation, Christian was an awesomely efficient and effective academic leader. Her no-nonsense abilities, sharpness of intellect, and ability to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the University – and colleagues – with tolerance and good humour made her universally respected. She was the founder of the Scottish Corpus of Texts and Speech, and for many years was Convener of Scottish Language Dictionaries.

Professor Christian Kay, 1970s

She will be remembered by her friends and colleagues as a warm, incisive, and selfless scholar; she was in addition the kindest of friends. Her kindness, generosity of spirit, and unshakeable dedication were matched only by her dry sense of humour. In 2005, in an interview, the Times Higher asked her "What has been your worst moment in university life?". Christian instantly responded "The first time a student said, "You taught my mother.'"

In memory of Professor Kay, the University of Glasgow has set up the Christian Kay Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Undergraduate Research into Modern English Language and Linguistics, which is paid from a fund established by friends, family, colleagues, and other supporters of the Historical Thesaurus and Christian's work. Contributions to this fund are very welcome, and can be made here.

In accordance with her wishes, there was no funeral. A memorial concert was instead held in her honour in the University of Glasgow Chapel on Wednesday 1 February 2017. The Director of Chapel Music, Kathryn Cooper, conducted the University Chapel Choir accompanied by Alan Tavener on the organ. Over one hundred friends and colleagues enjoyed the music of Mozart, Bach, Pergolesi and Verdi in pieces chosen by Christian herself. A recording of the concert is available below, and a copy of the programme is here.