Obituary: Prof Wilhelm Fritz Hermann Nicolaisen, English lecturer

Born 13 June, 1927 in Halle, Germany. Died 15 February, 2016 in Aberdeen, aged 88.

Prof Wilhelm Fritz Hermann Nicolaisen, lecturer was an expert on origins of place names. Picture: Contributed
Prof Wilhelm Fritz Hermann Nicolaisen, lecturer was an expert on origins of place names. Picture: Contributed

It might seem unusual that a scion of Schleswig-Holstein, a Dr Phil (summa cum laude) of the University of Tübingen, and Distinguished Professor of New York’s upstate University of Binghampton, should have strong Scottish ­connections.

Born in Halle, Germany in 1927, where his father was assistant professor of agriculture, he was the first of three sons of Andreas Wilhelm Albert Nicolaisen and Paula Elisabeth Kähler.

Nicolaisen survived his wartime service as a teenage AA gunner to finish his education at Tübingen, where his thesis in 1955 was on The 
River Names of Scotland, work enhanced by a scholarship 
to Glasgow’s Celtic Department.

An appointment followed as Head of the Place Names Study at the School of Scottish Studies in 1956, where he later became Acting Head of the School.

For Nicolaisen had branched out from river naming to that of Scotland as a whole, a project that partly culminated in his groundbreaking Scottish Place Names in 1976, and the Scottish component of The Names of Towns and Cities in Britain in 1970. Partly, because this was not the end of his researches into the naming of places.

Another Scottish connection was clinched when he shared a textbook in a Gaelic class with May Forsyth Jenkins Marshall, whom he married in 1958.

The first of four aptly named daughters, Fiona, Kirsten, Moira and Birgit was born in 1959. He was recruited to the department of English in the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1969, where he continued his principal research in onomastics – the study of names and place names.

This crossed over into very wide range of specialities such as history, geography, archaeology, literature, linguistics, folklore, as well as Pictish, Celtic and Nordic studies, producing a torrent of some 700 publications in both academic and popular journals. Selected essays appeared as the Scottish Place Name Society’s In the Beginning was the Name in 2011.

Elected president of numerous societies, his many awards and prizes culminated in winning the first American Folklore Society’s ‘Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award’ in 2002.

A Carnegie Visiting Fellowship to Aberdeen University in 1978 began a life-long association with that university and its hinterland, boosted by many return visits and vacations, (and an almost fanatical support of Aberdeen Football Club).

When he retired from Binghamton in 1993, having gained its highest accolade of Distinguished Professor, it was again no surprise that he returned to Aberdeen, where he was appointed Honorary Professor in English and awarded an honorary doctorate in 2006.

A well-built, handsome and devoted family man, he combined teaching, which was both illuminating and involving, with assiduous and thorough research.

A constant source of support of help, advice and encouragement, especially for younger researchers, he was greatly welcomed at conferences worldwide, where he typically would highlight and support the best from any presentation, combining this with many acts of kindness.

Across Britain, America and Europe his warmth and generosity of spirit will be very greatly missed.