Geoffrey Hughes (1939–2022)

30 October 2022 | Words Lisa Jackson. Photo Supplied. Read time 1 min.
Prof Geoffrey Hughes
Prof Geoffrey Hughes

20 April 1939 – 30 October 2022

Professor Geoffrey Hughes, an internationally renowned expert on the history of the English language, died on 30 October 2022.

Born on 20 April 1939 in Dar-es-Salam, where his father worked as an engineer, Professor Hughes was schooled in Kenya and England. During his school years, he was a keen rower and rugby player and was also selected for the Kenyan national cricket team. After his schooling, he gained a place at the University of Oxford, where he completed a master’s in English. It was there that he developed a passion for Anglo-Saxon literature, Chaucer and also Shakespeare, whose plays he went on to study in great detail, eventually being able to cite just about every line from every play. One of his lecturers at Oxford was the author JRR Tolkien, whose discourses on Middle English inspired his keen interest in the semantic origins of English. It was in Oxford, too, that he was exposed to classical music and art, two more lifelong interests. After Oxford he travelled to Israel, Jordan, Syria and Iran to explore their ancient ruins.

Professor Hughes’ academic career began in the 1960s in the English department at the University of Cape Town (UCT) where he lectured for two years – and much later returned as honorary research associate – before he moved to the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) where he was later promoted to Emeritus Professor of the History of the English Language. Barry Ronge and Helen Zille were just some of the South African luminaries whom he taught.

While at Wits, he completed a doctorate at the University of South Africa on the semantic history of the English language. In the 1970s, Professor Hughes was an honorary research associate at Harvard University, and in the following decade he began writing his “Watchword” column on the history of words for The Star newspaper – something he continued doing for 30 years until a few months before his death. A prolific author, he wrote five books that were published by world-leading publishers including Blackwell and Penguin.

Professor Hughes had two children – Alexander and Catherine – with his first wife, Ursula. The couple later divorced, and Ursula emigrated to Canada with their children. His second wife, the Rhodes scholar Dr Jean Marquard, with whom he had a son called Conrad, died of cancer at the age of 42. The love of his life, however, was Tish Summers, whom he married in the 1980s. It was Tish who introduced him to opera, in particular the works of Wagner, and who also shared her love of Afrikaans literature and culture with him. After a series of research fellowships in Europe, the couple retired to the South of France and eventually returned to South Africa where they settled in a retirement complex in Noordhoek. Early in 2022 Professor Hughes was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and after a short illness died on 30 October 2022.

After his death, his son Conrad spoke not only of his father’s academic brilliance, but his sensitive nature and amazing sense of humour. Tish recalled Geoff’s loyalty and passion, and described her beloved husband of 38 years as “the ideal partner”.

Geoffrey Hughes is survived by his wife, Tish Hughes, son Conrad Hughes and grandchildren Héloїse and Melchior.

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