Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

Matt and I recently had the opportunity to spend some time browsing through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

I began by reading the introduction. He began by looking up curse words. Once he had satisfied his curiosity about when certain very popular profanities first entered the English language, he turned his attention to the more unusual words within the inferior persons, as abused subcategory that have fallen out of use, such as windfucker (1602 to 1616), hog-rubber (1614 to 1621), chuff-cat (1653), shit-sack (1769 to 1785), and son of a sea-cook (1806 to 1977). This led to an animated discussion of the common themes that connected many of the words—comparisons to animals, sex with relatives or objects, and the inability to control one’s bowels.

That’s what happens when you put the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary within reach of a writer.

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time.

It took forty-four years to bring the HTOED to publication, overcoming what the editors politely describe as “a series of intellectual, financial, and domestic challenges.” About 800,000 meanings from the OED were transcribed onto slips of paper and organized into a unique classification system with over 236,000 categories and subcategories. A fire in 1978 would have destroyed a decade of work but for the fact that the paper slips were stored in a metal filing cabinet. They could have finished making slips by 1980, but the decision was made to add new material from the second edition of the OED and the supplements. Computers were eventually used to enter, store, and retrieve data, but much of the work continued to be done by hand.

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.

The classification system of the HTOED is mind-bogglingly complex, forming a hierarchy of meaning from the general to the specific. At the highest level are the three main sections—the external world, the mental world, and the social world—which divide into 26 major categories, such as the earth, life, emotion, society, morality, faith, armed hostility, and communication. These branch into more detailed categories like food, clothing, people, animals, transport, love, moral evil, and sexual relations. More specific categories and subcategories lead to the synonyms and related words, which are organized by part of speech and listed chronologically with the date of the first recorded use in English and, for obsolete words, the last recorded use. (I recommend reading the “guide to the use of the thesaurus” to get your bearings.)

Each level in this hierarchy of meaning is assigned a two-digit number, which when combined creates identification numbers for every word in the thesaurus. Some words have many identification numbers because they have numerous meanings or have changed their meanings over time and thus appear in different locations within the thesaurus.

For example, in the alphabetical index, the first identification number for the noun serendipity, one of my favorite words, is 01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01, locating it in the thesaurus within these nested categories and subcategories:

01                                                         the external world
01.05                                                  existence in time and space
01.05.05                                           action/operation
01.05.05.10                                    endeavour
01.05.05.10.02                             searching/seeking
01.05.05.10.02.01 (n.)              finding/discovery (noun)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10               accidentally (subcategory)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01        faculty of making happy discoveries by chance

Here you’ll find that the noun serendipity was first cited in 1754. After the finding/discovery (noun) category is the finding/discovery (adjective) category, in which serendipitous (01.05.05.10.02.01|03) dates from 1958.

The HTOED will clearly be important to the study of the English language, but it also could contribute to other subjects, especially history, literature, and culture. The descriptions of life and the earth over centuries are like crash courses in the history of science and medicine. Cultural historians will look for clues in our language to our attitudes about gender, race, and class, as with the words used to describe women based on animals (mare, hen, cow, heifer, bird) or clothing (skirt, smock, petticoat). Advancements in technology are reflected in subjects like travel, tools, telecommunications, and computing. Shakespeare scholars will be able to compare the words in use during his lifetime and argue about the reasons for his word choices. Even a category like clothing can reveal shifts in morality, as when underwear became unmentionables in 1823.

I believe the HTOED could be a rich source of inspiration and world-building for writers. Historical novelists could gain insight into the past and how people lived, what they knew and believed, and how they described their own world. And they’ll know whether the words their characters are speaking were actually in use at the time. (Elizabethans would not have called a packed meal a picnic, as it was first cited in 1748.)  Fantasy writers may unearth ideas in forgotten names or descriptions of supernatural beings and mythical creatures. Poets can reintroduce lyrical and imaginative words that have fallen out of use, such as candel (Old English to 1634), luminair (1456 to 1560), or streamer (1513 to 1647), all of which once described heavenly bodies. Eclectic writers like my husband who have a strong love of word-play and enjoy collecting unusual bits of knowledge will find it addictive.

Let’s say you’d like to take advantage of the current craze for vampires or literary monster mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The HTOED can tell you when different monsters first entered our nightmares and what we called them at distinct points in time. Follow the hierarchy of categories from the external world to the supernatural to supernatural being/spirit to malignant monster (noun). Here you’ll find that the word vampyre was first cited in 1734, followed by vampire in 1796. Though vampire is still in use today, the last recorded OED citation for vampyre was in 1847. Referring to vampires as undead didn’t begin until 1897. Werewolves trace all the way back to the Old English werewulf, lycanthrope was first cited in 1813 and is still in use, but the more poetic turnskin entered the language in 1831 and exited forty years later. Oh, and zombie was first cited in 1819, two years after the death of Jane Austen.

The editors have included all those words that have been too controversial for some other dictionaries and thesauruses. Curse words, sexual slang, and offensive slurs for racial and sexual minorities appear dispassionately in their chronological place among their less inflammatory cousins. Reading certain entries may cause shock, disgust, or pain, but there is value in putting these powerful words in their historical context. If you are easily offended or prefer your works expurgated, consider yourself warned.

Priced at $395 (on sale at Amazon for $316), the HTOED will unfortunately be out of reach for many of the writers and word lovers who might appreciate it, so keep it mind if you are looking for a fabulous gift for your favorite logophile.

For more information, check out this OUP website for the HTOED and this OUP blog post with “fun facts and figures” about the work. Here’s the link to a sample page from the work at the OUP website.

UPDATE, 10/28/09: I received an email from Christian Kay, editor of the HTOED. There are indeed plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away. There are no plans for a CD version. So it looks like the books will be the only option for quite some time.

NEW UPDATE, 6/18/10: The Oxford English Dictionary Online will be relaunched in December 2010 and will include an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. See my blog post “Word lovers rejoice” for more information.

NEW UPDATE, 11/30/10: The new OED website has launched, fully integrating the online Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.

9 responses to “Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

  1. I am so jealous. I’d love to have a copy of that book.

  2. Wait – lycanthrope was as late as 1813?

    But Webster’s “Duchess of Malfi” used the term 200 years earlier.

  3. lisagoldresearch

    Lis Riba–
    The werewolf subcategories list these variations of lycanthrope, each with different citation dates: lycanthropus (1584-1657); lycanthrope (1813 – ); lycanthropy (1830 – ); and lycanthropist (1831). The word lycanthrope (1621- ) meaning a delusional person also appears elsewhere in the thesaurus.

    Sorry for the confusion.
    — Lisa

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  5. Interesting.

    In other words, when people thought that werewolves were real, it was important linguistically to distinguish between werewolves and people who *thought* they were werewolves.

    By the time of the Enlightenment, when people *knew* there was no such thing as werewolves, that distinction was no longer important and the words became synonymous.

    Purely speculation based on the dates in the OED, but that’s what the timing suggests to me.

  6. Great overview of the book. It is a shame the price is so high. Perhaps a new client will make it possible🙂

  7. Thank you for the fascinating review! I look forward to returning to your website (and to the CD or online version of HTOED when it comes out).

  8. Just thought I’d mention that it’s the department of English Language at my university (I’m an English Language undergraduate) who are responsible for this wonderful book.

    So geekily proud!

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