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In memory of Professor Bill Nicolaisen

Professor Wilhelm Fritz Hermann (Bill) Nicolaisen (1927–2016)

Margaret A Mackay


Professor W.F.H. Nicolaisen, known to his colleagues as Bill, was born in Halle, Germany, and his university studies there and in England – at Kiel, Tübingen and King's College, Newcastle – included the subjects which were to form the bedrock of his academic career: English, German, Comparative Linguistics and Folklore. His doctoral research was on river names in England. Work as a German language lektor at the University of Glasgow and at University College Dublin drew him into the Celtic language sphere and with a scholarship to the Department of Celtic at the former he undertook a further dissertation, now with a focus on Scottish river-names. His appointment to the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1956 to take forward the work of its Scottish Place-Name Survey, gave him the base for pioneering work in onomastics (name studies) on which generations of scholars continue to build.

The School of Scottish Studies housed the two lexicographical projects on which Scottish Language Dictionaries was founded, A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST) and The Scottish National Dictionary (SND). In their editors, A J (Jack) Aitken and David Murison respectively, and in the staff of the School, the English Language Department and the Linguistic Surveys of Scots and Gaelic, Bill found a community of colleagues engaged in stimulating interdisciplinary work, with international dimensions, all of which he relished. Building on classic studies of Scottish place-names by earlier scholars, he added the new research dimension which was at the heart of the School's work, a programme of field recording, which augmented resources such as maps and early documents and added valuable material to the Archives of the School.

Interaction with collectors of folklore and ethnological material provided a further focus for Bill's research interests in narrative studies and the creative processes which inform tradition. He enjoyed the exploration of linguistic structures in tales, legends, ballads and jokes (and was an inveterate punster himself). These he was to develop further when appointed in 1969 to the English Department at the State University of New York at Binghampton. It is testament to his outstanding contribution to both name studies and folklore that he was awarded the inaugural Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award of the American Folklore Society in 2002, one of many honours he and his work received through the years. Ten years earlier he had moved back to Scotland to make his home in Aberdeen, where at the University of Aberdeen he was a valued Honorary Fellow and Professor to the end of his life.

An inspiring teacher and communicator, a tireless researcher and author of close to hundred scholarly articles, a willing, energetic organiser for bodies, conferences and projects designed to take his chosen disciplines forward, Bill Nicolaisen was a devoted family man, a good friend to many who have reason to be grateful for his encouragement, and a scholar who delighted in sharing the fruits of research as widely as possible. His regular column in the Scots Magazine, The Story Behind the Name, for example, no doubt helped greatly to stimulate the keen interest in place-names which is so much a feature of contemporary life in Scotland.

Bill was always very quick to give or send a word of thanks when deserved. Scotland and the wider world of onomastic and folklore scholarship owe him a debt of gratitude which cannot be easily measured. In Scottish Place-Names: Their Study and Significance (1976/2001) and In the Beginning was the Name: Selected Essays by Professor W.F.H. Nicolaisen (2011) the essence of the man and his work can be found and both are recommended reading.