Word lovers rejoice: the Historical Thesaurus will be added to OED Online in December

Last October, I blogged at length about the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was only available in two massive print volumes priced just under $400 (though discounted at Amazon.com). As I wrote at the time:

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….

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.

Christian Kay, the editor of the HTOED, read my post and sent me an email noting that there were 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.

The good news is that you’ll only have to wait until the end of this year. John Simpson, the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, has announced that the OED Online will be relaunched in December 2010 with major changes, including an integrated online edition of the HTOED:

It’s now just over ten years since the OED first went online in 2000, and these ten years have seen remarkable changes in the number, style, and functionality of online reference sites. The OED Online was a ground-breaking site when it was first launched online, and it has steadily received very positive responses from users.

Later this year we are taking the opportunity to make some major changes to the OED Online, taking into account readers’ comments and our own sense of how we would like the site to develop.

When the two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the OED was published in October 2009 we were immediately asked whether it could be incorporated into the OED Online. At the time, we were testing the feasibility of this, but now we can confirm that the relaunched OED site will contain an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. This means, for instance, that a user viewing the entry for halberd (the early modern weapon combining a spear and a battle-axe) can click to reach the related entries langue de boeuf, glaive, budge, poleaxe, ox-tongue, and partisan—to list only those first recorded between 1450 and 1611.

Here are more details from the OED Online relaunch FAQs:

Q. When will the new OED site launch?

A. The OED site will relaunch in December 2010. As well as the new-look website, the regular quarterly update will be published with new words and revisions of entries across the alphabet.

Q. What new content will be added at launch?

A. The most significant new content is the integration of the Historical Thesaurus of the OED (HTOED) into OED Online. This will allow readers to click through from entries to synonyms by date. The new site will also offer publicly-available feature pieces, providing guides to the OED content and regular commentaries on topical issues in the story of the language.

Q. What new functionality will be added at launch?

A. Amongst other things users will be able to search and browse the OED by a wide variety of criteria including subject, region, usage, or language of origin; see detailed information about the major sources of the OED; view search results as a timeline; and be able personalize the resource by saving searches and entries to their own profile.

Q. Will I have to take out a new subscription to access the HTOED?

A. No, it will be fully integrated and therefore accessible as part of your current subscription.

Individuals can subscribe to the OED Online for $295 a year or $29.95 a month. But you may not need an individual subscription, as many public and university libraries subscribe to it, and some (like the Seattle Public Library) offer free online access from home if you have a library card.

For more about the HTOED, see my original post, “Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.”

Update, 11/30/2010: The new OED website has launched, and it fully integrates the Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.

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