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John Orr (1885–1966)

by I. H. Smith

This article was published:

John Orr (1885-1966), professor of linguistics, was born on 4 June 1885 at Egremont, Cumberland, England, eldest of five children of Peter Orr, joiner, and his wife Lillias Duncan, née Allan. In that year the family emigrated to Australia, settling first at Albany, Western Australia, and then at Launceston, Tasmania. John attended Charles Street School and the High School, Launceston. In 1902 he enrolled at the University of Tasmania. After winning a Rhodes scholarship in April 1905, he entered Balliol College, Oxford (B.A., 1910; B.Litt., 1913).

In 1909 Orr was troubled by ill health. Advised to winter in France, he discovered both an affinity for the language and a future wife. On 5 March 1910 he married Augusta Berthe Brisac (d.1961), daughter of an expatriate French family who were living in St Petersburg. He completed his licence ès lettres at the Sorbonne in 1911. Appointed assistant-lecturer in French at Victoria University of Manchester, England, in 1913, he later taught (1915) at the East London College, University of London. In 1916-18, as a second lieutenant in the British Army, he performed intelligence duties with the Admiralty and in France. Returning to the University of Manchester, he held (from 1919) the chair of French language before becoming professor of French at the University of Edinburgh in 1933.

Orr's most penetrating work was in linguistic geography, historical phonetics and etymology. Particularly interested in the mechanism of homonymic collisions, he composed some fascinating studies on the perturbations caused by the clash of obscene and scabrous words with their homonyms. His approach was humanistic, marked by modesty and an engaging sense of humour. He published Old French and Modern English Idiom (Oxford, 1962) and two volumes of collected articles, Words and Sounds in English and French (Oxford, 1953) and Essais d'Etymologie et de Philologie Françaises (Paris, 1963). Appointed to the Légion d'honneur, he was elected a fellow of the British Academy (1952) and awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Manchester (1938), Caen, France (1945), and St Andrews, Scotland (1955).

Six ft 4 ins (193 cm) tall, with a long, square-jawed face, Orr was a good athlete, a talented artist, and a collector of paintings. He returned only once to Tasmania, in 1928, and contributed to a debate in the Mercury about the role of academics in university government. His letter of 12 November that year was courteous and judicious, but was deemed 'paternalistic' by lay members of the council of the University of Tasmania. Over twenty-six years later, the issue was decided by a royal commission, precipitated by another letter to the Mercury composed by Orr's homonym, the professor of philosophy Sydney Sparkes Orr.

John Orr retired from the University of Edinburgh in 1955. He was president of the Modern Humanities Research Association (1954) and the Fédération Internationale des Langues et Littératures Modernes (1963-66) at Cambridge; he also presided over the Association Internationale des Études Françaises (1955-57) and the Société de Linguistique Romane (1965) in Paris. Orr died on 10 August 1966 at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh. His son (and only child) had been killed in June 1944 while serving with the Royal Air Force.

Select Bibliography

  • Studies in Romance Philology and French Literature Presented to John Orr by Pupils, Colleagues and Friends (Manchester, Eng, 1953)
  • Orbis, 1, 1952
  • Student, Apr 1953
  • British Academy (London), Proceedings, 52, 1967
  • Revue de Linguistique Romane, 31, 1967
  • Examiner (Launceston), 6 July 1938, 13 Aug 1966
  • Times (London), 15 Aug 1966
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

I. H. Smith, 'Orr, John (1885–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 June, 1885
Egremont, Cumberland, England


10 August, 1966 (aged 81)
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland

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