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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
01.05.05.10.02.01 (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.
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.
While browsing through the new SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) website, which launched this week, I discovered Patricia C. Wrede’s list of fantasy worldbuilding questions to help create believable imaginary settings. (The list is not new, just new to me.) I highly recommend it, especially since many of her questions would be useful for detailed worldbuilding in general, regardless of genre.
SFWA’s Information Center contains articles for writers grouped into categories: advice for new writers, contracts and copyrights, the craft of writing, and the business of writing. (There isn’t a lot of content in this section yet, but the SFWA blog noted it will take time to transfer material from the old site to the new.)
Another resource on the site is Writer Beware, containing “warnings about literary fraud and other schemes, scams, and pitfalls that target writers.”
The io9 website, in an article called “4 Authors We Wish Would Return to Science Fiction,” has interesting statements from Nicola Griffith, Karen Joy Fowler, Mary Doria Russell, and Samuel R. Delany about the role of genre in their writing. (I am a big fan of all three women and their books, but I confess I have not yet read anything by Mr. Delany.)
Here are some of the quotes I found particularly interesting.
SF and historical fiction make similar demands on an author. They both require you to imagine as fully as possible a time and place that are not your own. In all my novels, there is an ironic and distanced narrator who knows a lot more than the characters about their past and future. And there is always an awareness of the contemporary limitations of technology and ideology, and of how those limitations affects lives…
[I]ntellectually, I am drawn to borderlands and to the people who inhabit them: marginal natives, newcomers, travelers, people who don’t fit and who therefore have an interestingly slanted view of the cultures they inhabit. Remember: I was an anthropologist long before I was a novelist. We are trained to seek out marginal natives; no one can give you a better perspective on aspects of culture that statistically normal people simply accept as, well, normal.
Admittedly: I have turned out to be kind of a genre slut. I will stand on the literary street corner and get into any genre that drives by and offers to take me to a good par-tay. And sometimes I don’t go home with the one who brung me to the dance…
So I guess what this all adds up to is: who gives a shit about labels? I write about what fascinates me, and I use whatever tools seem best suited to do the job at hand. What happens after that is marketing.
1) I don’t set out to write in any genre; that’s just not my working method. I start with whatever I have, some tiny incoherent image that I hope to make into a story. And then I take what I need to make that story work. Maybe what I need comes from science fiction, but maybe not. I won’t know until I write it.
2) I’m really interested in genre and draw a lot of energy from it. So even if the things I write aren’t, strictly speaking, genre piece, they all seem to be in conversation with genre in some way. (I like mysteries as much as I like sf, by the way.)
3) What I love most about science fiction is the short fiction. Almost all my short fiction spins around a science fictional idea even if the resulting story isn’t quite sf. Charles Brown of Locus told me once that I’m a science fiction writer because I think like a science fiction writer and I was enormously flattered and hope that’s true.
4) But even if it is, mystery writing with its emphasis on plot and sf writing with its emphasis on tech don’t really play to my strengths…
…I’m always writing for sf readers. Science fiction readers enjoy figuring things out and don’t mind being puzzled for long stretches. They read in a very active way. And that’s the way I read and those are the readers I’m trying to please…
Stan Robinson says we all live in a science fiction novel now and it’s clearly true. So I truly believe that science fiction is realism now and literary realism is a nostalgic literature about a place where we once lived, but no longer do.
I’m a native of sf. You can’t leave that kind of thing behind. Just as everyone I meet in the US knows I’m English, everyone who reads my work knows I’m a skiffy geek. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been away; my English sf upbringing colours my accent, my attitude, my vocabulary. It’s who I am…
These writers, like many of my favorites (including my husband), write across different genres so they can tell the stories they want to tell, in the way they want to tell them.
I remember there was a bit of controversy when Matt won the 2003 James Tiptree Jr. award (for works that explore gender in science fiction or fantasy) for Set This House in Order, as some people questioned whether the book was science fiction. Matt addressed this in his acceptance speech, first with a joke (“Is Set This House in Order science fiction? Or as Margaret Atwood might say: ‘Hey! Where’s the spaceship?'”), then with a detailed explanation of what he was trying to do with the book and why he believed that “though it may not be SF in the strictest sense, it is at least SFnal in its methods and its goals…”:
[The premise of the novel] lit up all the same enthusiasm circuits that a good science-fiction premise would have… I decided early on to write the book as a “what if” novel: to simply accept certain premises as true, and focus my creative energy on exploring the implications of those premises. My goal was to tell an entertaining story that was believable and internally consistent. I’d take accuracy if and where I could get it, but the point was to provide food for thought, not definitive answers…
Another strategy, which I learned from science-fiction writers, is to write the speculative parts of the story in such a way that they remain intriguing even if the premises on which they are based ultimately turn out to be fantasy. As Ray Bradbury demonstrated with The Martian Chronicles, and as Mary Shelley demonstrated way, way back in the day with Frankenstein, the logic of dreams can remain compelling even after we have awakened….
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