Born: April 4, 1940;

Died: May 28, 2016

CHRISTIAN Kay, who has died aged 76, was a former professor of English language at the University of Glasgow and a world-leading authority in a specialism that has been at the heart of Scottish scholarship since the early nineteenth century: lexicography.

Her field was the linguistics of English, with a special focus on the history of the language, and in 2009 a lifetime of patient research came to fruition with the publication of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. The new Historical Thesaurus orders the almost 800,000 words recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, many with multiple meanings, into notional categories rather than as a simple alphabetical list, and thus allows new insights into the ways in which language change reflected changes in human culture. The result of this research was the world’s largest thesaurus, the most complete thesaurus of English, and the only complete historical thesaurus of any language.

The Historical Thesaurus was first conceived of in 1964 by Michael Samuels, then Glasgow’s Professor of English Language, but he was quickly joined by several other scholars, including Professor Kay. She had arrived in Glasgow first as a research assistant, but her managerial and intellectual abilities swiftly made her indispensable; it was not long before she was managing a large team of linguists, lexicographers and programmers, and had become responsible for the direction of the entire project.

Her input was not only intellectual, but also practical; Christian Kay swiftly grasped – again ahead of her time – the importance of external funding for large-scale research in the humanities, and her success in this area meant that she was able to employ over 200 researchers and production staff over some 40 years (many of these employees went on to distinguished careers in academia, in lexicography and in information technology.) The result is one of the greatest achievements of 20th century scholarship.

Significantly, Christian Kay had the vision to see how the use of computing could change the way in which very large humanities research programmes could be pursued. Her work prefigured, therefore, and indeed influenced the emergence of the international research field now known as digital humanities.

When the thesaurus appeared in 2009, praise was immediate, with the New York Times commenting on how “historians, sociologists, philosophers and literary critics will soon wonder how they got by for so long without it... indispensable”. The substantial royalties accrued from the project have been, at the wish of its editors, assigned to postgraduate studentships for research into the linguistics of English and of Scots.

Christian Janet Kay was born in 1940; as a child she was an avid classifier of sweets and buttons, prefiguring interests to come. After a happy education at Mary Erskine’s School in Edinburgh, she proceeded to Edinburgh University, graduating with an MA in English Language and Literature in 1962, and then taking an AM at Mount Holyoke College in the USA.

She then took on short-term jobs in English language teaching in Sweden, and in professional lexicography; Professor Kay always felt she was an accidental academic, and she had a rich hinterland of politics, journalism, and music. However the fascination with language was a common thread, and she eventually became a lecturer in Michael Samuels’s department at the end of the 1970s.

As a university lecturer she rapidly proved her outstanding abilities. A stream of publications emerged over the years, including a Thesaurus of Old English (with Jane Roberts and Lynne Grundy, 2000), and such work continued long after retirement; the authoritative English Historical Semantics, with Kathryn Allan (one of Professor Kay’s former doctoral students and now senior lecturer at University College London) appeared in 2015.

Professor Kay also created the first computer lab for English studies in the world, which required her to develop a range of ground-breaking teaching software, and one of the first-ever research-led courses in literary and linguistic computing. She supervised numerous doctoral students, and inspired generations of undergraduates with her ability to make complex subjects accessible linked to a droll – sometimes wicked - sense of humour. As a university manager and head of department, her quick-wit, total integrity and ability to treat human and institutional idiosyncrasies with tolerant good humour and practical kindness made her universally respected.

Christian Kay retired as Professor of English Language in 2005, but remained highly active as a researcher and facilitator of other’s research, not only on Thesaurus-derived projects, but also as first convener of the Board of Scottish Language Dictionaries; she was instrumental in securing funding for this work from the Scottish Executive, and seeing such support sustained for the future.

As convener, she worked hard to promote the study and analysis of Scots and Scottish English, being responsible for the co-ordination and supervision of the academic research which makes up the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the principal repository for the study of Scots words and their history. Glasgow awarded her the honorary degree of DLitt in 2013.

Until the end of her life – an end she confronted characteristically in a courageous, matter-of-fact way – Professor Kay engaged with authority and enthusiastically in discussion of research projects with colleagues; that she had some years before decided that she would donate her body for medical research was entirely in line with her total commitment to intellectual endeavour.

But Christian Kay was never an austere academic with no time for external relationships; indeed, she had a gift for sustained, deep and generous friendship, and for being a sympathetic listener to anyone in trouble. She is survived by a sister and a brother. She never married.