A 40-year project in the making, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary
is the first historical thesaurus to include almost the entire vocabulary of English, from Old English to the present day. Conceived and compiled by the Department of English Language of the University of Glasgow, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary
is a groundbreaking analysis of the historical inventory of English, allowing users to find words connected in meaning throughout the history of the language.
The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary
is a unique resource for word-lovers of all types--linguists and language specialists, historians, literary commentators, among others--as well as a fascinating resource for everyone with an interest in the English language and its historical development. It is a perfect complement to the OED
itself, allowing the words in the OED
to be cross-referenced and viewed in wholly new ways.
Timeline for the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary
- 1965: Announcement by Michael Samuels, Professor of English Language at the University of Glasgow--at a lecture to the Philological Society--that his department intends to undertake production of a historical thesaurus of English. Work on the Historical Thesaurus begins. The focus is on data collection and the entries are compiled using paper slips to record data (in the same way as the Oxford English Dictionary).
- 1969: When the scale of the project becomes apparent, a successful application for funding leads to the employment of Irene Wotherspoon and Christian Kay as research assistants, mainly collecting data. A number of volunteers begin to work on the project in Glasgow, Germany, and Canada.
- 1978: The project faces many challenges during the 1970s, the most significant being a major fire which threatened to destroy the entire archive of paper slips. All material is subsequently microfilmed and copies are kept at different locations in the UK. During the 1970s, classifying the data becomes the main focus. Postgraduate students are recruited. A decision is also taken to include material from the Supplements, and the forthcoming second edition and additions series of the OED. This enriches, but also slows down, the project. During the 1980s, Old English material is entered into electronic databases developed in London.
- 1981: Talks with Oxford University Press on publishing the project. During the 1980s, the UK government sponsors a program to train people in editing and data-entry skills. The trainees help to edit and input the bulk of the Historical Thesaurus data into an electronic system.
- 1984: Department of English Language moves into its current site at Glasgow University. A kitchen is converted into a fire-proof archive.
- 1989: Christian Kay becomes director of the project.
*Starred Review* Billed as “the first historical thesaurus to be written for any of the world's languages,” the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED) already had a long history by the time it was published last year. It was first proposed back in 1965, but various circumstances—including additions and supplements to the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, on which it is based; a lack of funds; a system based on using paper slips; and a fire that nearly destroyed the archive in 1978—slowed things down. For scholars of the English language, it was worth the wait. The HTOED “looks at the range of meanings that a word has had over the ages, and documents all the words in general English use over a period of many hundreds of years.” Though based on the A–Z definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (with additional material from A Thesaurus of Old English, 1995), it has a thematic arrangement. Three main themes— “The External World,” “The Mental World,” and “The Social World”—occupy the top level and are divided into 7 categories, which are in turn sliced into 26 categories, and so on. For example, “The External World” is divided into “The Earth,” “Life,” and “Physical Sensibility,” among other categories; and “Physical Sensibility” is further divided into categories such as “Taste/Flavour,” “Smell/Odor,” and “Sight.” There are more than 236,000 categories and subcategories, and a numbering system is used to identify categories and hierarchical levels. Individual entries may be arranged by part of speech; seeing/looking, for example (01.03.07.03), is treated separately as a noun, adjective, and adverb. Synonyms are presented in chronological order and include dating as well as conventions indicating provenance, alternate spellings, and more. It can be a challenge to puzzle out the thesaurus' structure, and readers will find themselves turning often to the introductory material with its detailed explanations, examples, and charts. Volume 2 comprises the index, an essential tool given the way the thesaurus is arranged—though it also takes fortitude (and a pair of reading glasses) to use, because category numbers rather than page and column numbers are used. This thesaurus is not for the faint of heart, but on the other hand, it's not intended to be a quick synonym finder. Rather, it is designed “to provide a detailed record of the English vocabulary from the earliest times to the present.” In addition to being a history of words used to express a meaning over time, it is also meant to be used as a thesaurus for any period in the past. Digging out meanings current in Chaucer's or Shakespeare's time would be difficult without the aid of an index by date, however, and it is to be hoped that this is one of the advantages users will find in the electronic version, which will be released along with the redesign of the Oxford English Dictionary Online later this year. --Mary Ellen Quinn