Who was, is Janet Whitcut?

(I am grateful to several people, particularly Robert Ilson and Moca Mace, for telling me about their acquaintance with Janet Whitcut.)

Janet Whitcut is important for our work as the author, along with Sidney Greenbaum (1929-1996), of The Longman Guide to English Usage (1988). Together, they revised Sir Ernest Gowers’s Complete Plain Words, of which one edition was published by His Majesty’s Stationary Office in 1986, while a third edition came out the year after that (Penguin).

Chloe White, one of the contributors to this blog, wrote a paper about the Longman Guide to English Usage and tried to find out who Janet Whitcut is (or was). But other than Sidney Greenbaum, Janet Whitcut has no entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography, nor in Wikipedia.

A Google search for her produced various book titles, including The Penguin Book of Exotic Words (1996) and Better Wordpower (Practical help on how to improve your use of the English language), Mastering English Usage (1994, written jointly with Robert Ilson) and Edgbaston High School, 1876-1976. Janet Whitcut also revised Partidge’s Usage and Abusage (1994). An article appeared as well, called “Sexism in dictionaries”, which is a paper she presented at the first EURALEX conference in 1983.

Dr Robert Ilson

Chloe was unable to find any trace of Janet Whitcut beyond 1999. Asking around didn’t help: David Cystal told me to contact Bas Aarts, who remembered meeting her thirty years ago, but that was it. Taking up the link with Robert Ilson took me to the website of Thornton’s Budgens, a “community supermarket”, which features Robert Ilson as their “poet laureate”. Is their picture of “Dr Robert Ilson” that of our man?

Robert Ilson’s name is familiar to me as the author of the article “Usage problems in British and American English”, published in a collection called The English Language Today (1985), edited by Sidney Greenbaum. And, yes, that produced another link: the collection also includes an article by Janet Whitcut: “English, my English?”.

Sidney Greenbaum

So even if this search has not told us much more of who Janet Whitcut is (or was), it did produce a small network of writers on English usage: Sidney Greenbaum & Janet Whitcut, Janet Whitcut & Robert Ilson, Sidney Greenbaum & Janet Whitcut & Robert Ilson. If Robert Ilson is the only one who is still alive, I hope he will read this and tell us more about his colleague and collaborator. But perhaps other people can help us, too.

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14 Responses to Who was, is Janet Whitcut?

  1. Monica mace says:

    In response to the post who is or was Janet Whitcut I can let you know that she is still alive, is now in her late eighties and lives quietly in the Lake District. Janet is an old family friend and my niece saw her last week!

    • Dear Monica Mace,

      Thank you for this news about Janet Whitcut! What made you look for her on the internet, bringing you to our blog?

      Best wishes,
      Ingrid Tieken

      • Monica mace says:

        Hi Ingrid,

        I am spending some time with my mother, who is in her late 90’s. She first met Janet just after the Second World War and she and my father remained good friends with Janet and her husband ever after ( sadly both my father and Janet’s husband are now dead).

        My mother was reminiscing about her friends, and at first I decided to look up people she had lost touch with. My mother is not really familiar with the internet and so was amazed at what I could find out! So she wanted to know out of interest what might be on the internet about Janet. As you say there is remarkably little but I came across your blog. Although I couldn’t quite work out the basis of your forum, I presumed you were academics and genuinely interested in Janet and her works.

        Best wishes


      • That is right, Monica. We are doing research on usage guides, and it turns out that Janet collaborated with Sidney Greenbaum (no longer alive) on one. Thanks for all this, I will update the item.

  2. Simon says:

    Dear Ingrid,

    I came across your blog post as I was looking through Janet’s work online.

    I am originally from the Lake District and my parents live in a very rural area but we would refer to her as our neighbour. I’ve known Janet for as long as I can remember (I’m 26 now, living in London) and had never thought to look up her work until now. She has never been one to brag about her achievements so it is only really now I’ve realised the impact she has had on lexicography. Whenever I am home I go and visit her to have lively discussions about language, travel and her really quite fascinating life.

    I saw her last at Christmas and will see her in a few weeks as I am visiting home for a weekend. Unfortunately her health is now deteriorating but she is always found surrounded by her books and two cats. Please let me know if you would like me to pass anything on to her or if you have any questions for her.

    All the best

    Simon Boyd

    • Dear Simon,

      Many thanks for this! Perhaps, next time you visit Janet, you could tell her about this project, in which her work plays an important role! Amd please give her all my best wishes!

      Thanks for your comment,

      • Cath Bromwich says:

        Ingrid, I bumped into Simon in the Pub a couple of nights ago and he told me to look my Aunt Janet up on the internet! Simon and his family are very kind to Janet. I organise her care. If you want to be in touch with her at all do let me know. She would love to hear more about your work I am sure! Thanks Cath

      • Many thanks for this, Cath! I sent her a postcard a while ago, and hope she got it. Please give her my best regards! I think I would like to interview her about her work, but will need to organise this carefully. Thanks for the offer in any case.

  3. Adrian Stenton says:

    Dear Ingrid, Hello again. I copy-edited your “The Bishop’s Grammar” in what is now several years ago. I stumbled across this, and have a little bit to add. When I worked at Longman, as an ELT dictionary editor, Janet was one of out freelance lexicographers. She contributed to the first edition of the “Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English”, and to the second edition, but seems to have dropped out after that. I don’t know anything about her background, I’m afraid. We used to spend many interesting hours discussing usage, on which she had a lot to say. Her “Longman Guide to English Usage” remains my favourite usage reference, and I am even now spending many an idle hour checking its statements against a home-grown corpus of International Academic English. If you do get to meet her, please pass on my best wishes. And, please do keep me informed of your current work. With very best wishes, Adrian (Stenton)

  4. Sean Cull says:

    Janet passed away in her sleep last week. I met her for the first time about 10 years ago when we became neighbours of sorts and she was a wonderful character.

    I used to see her every few weeks and would make sure to store up a collection of words to discuss with her as that was her passion. On my last visit I said “take care” as I left and she rounded on me for the stupidity of telling a bed ridden person to “take care”.

    I had a similar experience when when I asked how her husband had “passed away” – something along the lines of saying what I meant rather than hiding behind words – “how did her husband die ” I was told to say.

    Janet was a remarkable character and i will miss our robust conversations. I had always meant to write to her between visits but time and again I put it off as there was something quite intimidating about the thought of committing my expressions to paper and leaving them with Janet in a permanent form to be dissected.

    I will miss her a lot.

    • Thank you for this lovely piece of remembrance, Sean! We are so sorry to hear this sad news …

    • Cath Bromwich says:

      Thanks Sean, it was always so nice to arrive at the barn and find you both quietly chatting. She died with me holding her hand and her head and others who cared for her around her. I so appreciate all the patient visiting that you and so many others enjoyed in the last few years. See you soon, Cath

  5. Jane Bhandari says:

    Sorry to hear Janet has gone. Her husband Harry was a friend of my father’s and played Early English music with her. I visited her several times , the last time around 2012. What a wonderful house they had. Both fascinating people. I think with her goes my last connection to the Lake District.

    • George and Jacquie says:

      Dear All, we knew Harry and Janet in the early sixties when Harry and I were both working for DuPont UK. It quickly turned out that we were not typical big company apparatchiks and became friends outside work. Our cat at the tiime (Foufou) was a gift of a kitten from them. Another memory was the wine club founded by the Whitcuts: we imported a barrel and then held bottling parties taking turns to host the event. Great fun and much tasting under the pretext of losing « siphonage » and having to lie under the barrel with a tube in our mouth …… enough said ;-).
      Jacquie and I are both soldiering on in Paris and prefer not to talk about our age.
      Warm regards and good vaccinations

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