Obituary: John Scott

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The Independent Online
John Scott had the true lexicographer's passion for accuracy and plain English.

A fierce debate with his collaborator on the ground- breaking 1981 Dictionary of Waste and Water Treatment over the use of odour versus smell was carried on over the telephone lines to Edinburgh, in daily discussions which lasted for some months, with Scott refusing to budge from the use of smell. His writing also brought him into the company of that legion of lexicographers, translators, specialist librarians and working builders and engineers for whom his technical dictionaries had an almost biblical value. This admiration was not unfounded: the RIBA Journal described the Dictionary of Civil Engineering (1965) as "probably the best dictionary of modern structural terminology available in English today".

Scott's standards of accurate definition had much to do with his generation's distrust of the abstractions and universals which led the world so far astray in the devil's decade of the 1930s. Much as he hated his lessons at Wellington College, he was an accomplished Latinist, and this too contributed to his wish to clarify and his distrust of emotive expression. His references were discrete, but never to the point of locking the reader into his sense of the term. His authority came from experience, from having been in the mine or on the site, from having seen with his own eyes the consequences of lowering standards (he was one of the Flixborough inspectors), and from his own laboured use, year in, year out, in his own cellar and on his own roof, of the tools he so clearly defined and described.

Scott was born in 1915 in Jullundur, Punjab, the second of three sons. His father was then a captain in the 37th Baluchistan Horse. The family combined a tradition of service to church and state with gifted and colourful forebears on his mother's side, including the 18th- century Yorkshireman of sport, Colonel Thornton of Thornville Royal, for whom the sky perpetually rained meat, the watercolourist Robert Philip Atkinson, Canon J.C. Atkinson, nonegarian author of the classic Forty Years in a Moorland Parish (1891), and Robert Leicester Atkinson RN, doctor to Captain R.F. Scott's final expedition to the South Pole.

Scott was sent from India to be educated at Wellington College in Berkshire, a place he remembered with little affection, although he appears to have fitted in well. From Wellington, he went to Imperial College, London University, where he took a BSc in Engineering.

His retreat from his class and background appears to have begun around this time, as he adopted the style he favoured on and off for the rest of his life: sandals, an open-necked shirt, dungarees held up with a string or wire belt, a shirt pocket bristling with sharpened pencils, travel by bicycle.

He was set for a career in structural engineering when a yen for travel took him to the oilfields of Romania for British Petroleum. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, he escaped from Romania by hanging from the couplings of the last train out when it was boarded by militia, then strolling round the border posts to rejoin his compartment on the Hungarian side.

Scott hoped to be registered as a conscientious objector but was denied that status, even when he "lost" his rifle bolt in training. A compromise was eventually reached by which he was sent to design gun emplacements at Scapa Flow, and later to the collieries at Aberfan. War brought him marriage to Paulette Charrier, a secretary in de Gaulle's London office, the death of his brother David at the Caen landings in June 1945, and in July of that year the birth of his first child, Amandine.

Scott spent the early post-war years working in Paris but returned to London when his marriage failed. In the mid-1950s he moved in with and eventually married Maria, already the mother of two children by the writer Philip O'Connor. He then began a long series of technical office jobs, starting with the Ove Arup partnership and ending with the National Coal Board in 1980. In between came jobs in Saudi Arabia, where he became "Mr Smith" the newscaster on the side and was briefly held in manacles for injuring a boy with his car, and in Vienna with Unido.

His writing life began in the mid-1950s, when he started work on his Dictionary of Building, published by Penguin in 1958. From then until the very week of his death, his days were extraordinarily full. Not only did he write and keep in print four comprehensive technical dictionaries, but he also found the time to add to fluent French and Romanian an excellent command of Russian, German and Spanish.

He was also continually repairing the family home in London in order to trade up. He moved from Soho to Regent's Park to Kew and Chiswick and finally to Hornsey. Into these surroundings of upturned floorboards, fresh- mixed concrete and half-sealed plumbing arrived three more children, who grew up with an image of their father as a man in a hurry - barking instructions from two floors up at the other end of a tangle of copper piping, cutting and pasting yet another dictionary, rushing with shiny briefcase and ill- fitting suit to catch the bus to the detested day job. To some extent, these activities merged, as Scott tested his dictionary knowledge on the houses, sometimes with unusual results.

Apart from his allotment and some challenging improvised copper and fibreglass cutlery which he made, Scott had no leisure activities. Even within his family circle, he tended to confine small talk to his latest technical interest. Persuaded to take a holiday in 1987, only two sights excited much enthusiasm during a long round-trip between the Languedoc and Barcelona: one a factory chimney, the other a timber-truss suspension bridge. However, towards the end of his life, he became a keen participant in the Sunday outings of the Jewish Ramblers, among whose circle his gentle way of speech, his absolute honesty and humility, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of concrete things made him good friends.

When Scott died he was working on Padlock's Broken, a series of portraits of people he admired, with scarcely an engineer among them. His last complete book, co-authored with Clinton van Zyl, Introduction to EMC, on electro- magnetic compatibility and the dangers of electro-magnetic radiation, is due from Butterworth's this summer.

John Scott led a difficult but an interesting and productive life. He was too awkward in society to gather much celebrity, but his work, like the man himself, had a laconic, diffident charm which grew upon his readers and those who knew him. He wasted very little time.

John Somerville Scott, lexicographer, builder, and chartered mining and structural engineer: born Jullundur, Punjab 22 February 1915; author of The Penguin Dictionary of Building 1958, The Penguin Dictionary of Civil Engineering 1965, Dictionary of Waste and Water Treatment 1981, First Dictionary of Microcomputing 1987, (jointly with Clinton van Zyl) Introduction to EMC 1997; married 1944 Paulette Charrier (one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved), 1960 Maria O'Connor (nee Steiner; two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died London 12 May 1997.