Category Archives: Thesaurus

Free access this week to the Oxford English Dictionary & Historical Thesaurus

Oxford University Press is celebrating National Library Week with free access through April 20th to two of their best online resources:

Both sites can be accessed this week by using the same username and password: libraryweek

See OUP’s post for more information. If your local public library system subscribes to these resources, you may already have free access to them from home through your library website with your library card number and PIN.

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The combined online Oxford English Dictionary and Historical Thesaurus has launched

The new  and improved OED website (www.oed.com) has launched, fully integrating the online Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. You can now quickly and easily search, browse, and cross-reference the two works. (For background, see my earlier post on the OED relaunch and my review of the print version of the Historical Thesaurus.)

Here’s a message from the Chief Editor about the relaunch, describing some of the new changes.

If your library has a subscription to the OED Online that you can access remotely from home (like the Seattle Public Library and King County Library systems do), you can get free, full access to the OED website by entering your library card number.  If not, you can get an individual subscription for $295 a year or $29.95 a month.

Go explore!

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.

Oxford University Press is having a sale

Those of you who share my love of reference books should know that Oxford University Press’ annual Spring Sale has begun. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is unfortunately not on sale, but many other great books are 30%, 50%, or 65% off. (The site is a bit difficult to browse– you have to browse by subject and also by discount– and the sale prices aren’t visible until you place the item in your cart, but your patience will be rewarded.)

While browsing, I spotted these two items which may be of interest to readers of my blog:

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.

The writer’s bookshelf (part 1)

Anyone who writes or edits should have at least a few essential references close at hand. This is the first in a series of posts about useful reference works for the writer’s bookshelf.

The references I’ll be posting about are in book form, though some may also be available on the web or on CD-ROM. These different formats have their strengths and weaknesses, and though I generally prefer having books I can keep within arm’s reach of my desk for easy access and browsing, you should use whatever works best for you.

Some references, such as dictionaries and thesauruses, are available in a dizzying number of editions and formats, in print and online. I may recommend a particular edition I like and use, but you should compare a few directly (pick some sample words, look them up in different works, and compare the results) and choose the ones that meet your needs. The best references are ones that have the information you need in a format you find easy to navigate so that you’ll actually use them.

Thesauruses

For years I used a classic Roget’s Thesaurus, the kind that arranged words in categories according to their meaning rather than in alphabetical order. I never gave it much thought, and I wasn’t looking for a new thesaurus, but a few years ago I discovered something much better, and I haven’t opened poor Roget’s since.

The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus has become my thesaurus of choice for a number of reasons. It contains over 300,000 synonyms, arranged alphabetically, and features contributions by working writers, including Simon Winchester, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, David Auburn, Francine Prose, Michael Dirda, and Stephin Merritt. This work places a great deal of emphasis on distinguishing between the different word choices and explaining how they should be used, making it much easier to find just the right word. I particularly like the special features, the notes and mini-essays giving a writer’s perspective on particular words and their usage, explaining fine distinctions in meaning among closely related synonyms, and clarifying easily confused words.  The book also contains concise guides to grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, as well as important points of American English usage by Bryan Garner.

Here are a few examples to give you a sense of the style and usefulness of this work:

From the “word note” for utilize*:

This is a puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter. Rather, using utilize makes you seem like either a pompous twit or someone so insecure that he’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look smart… What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: “Formal writing” does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.

From “the right word” note for plot:

If you come up with a secret plan to do something, especially with evil or mischievous intent, it’s called a plot (a plot to seize control of the company). If you get other people or groups involved in your plot, it’s called a conspiracy (a conspiracy to overthrow the government). Cabal usually applies to a small group of political conspirators (a cabal of right-wing extremists), while machination (usually plural) suggests deceit and cunning in devising a plot intended to harm someone (the machinations of the would-be assassins). An intrigue involves more complicated scheming or maneuvering than a plot and often employs underhanded methods in an attempt to gain one’s own ends (she had a passion for intrigue, particularly where romance was involved).

From the “easily confused words” note for incredible and incredulous:

Believability is at the heart of both incredible and incredulous, but there is an important distinction in the respective uses of these two adjectives. Incredible means ‘unbelievable’ or ‘not convincing’ and can be applied to a situation, statement, policy, or threat to a person: I find this testimony incredible. Incredulous means ‘disinclined to believe, skeptical’–the opposite of credulous, gullible— and is usually applied to a person’s attitude: he managed to look simultaneously incredulous and bored by her story.

This work is not only informative, it is also fun to browse through, which isn’t true of any other thesaurus I’ve ever seen.

The first edition of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus was published in 2004 and it is still in print. (The retail price is $40, but Amazon sells it for $24.) A second edition is scheduled for November 2008.

There are, of course, many other thesauruses, in print and online, so find one you like and use it.

* The word note for “utilize” was written by David Foster Wallace. To read some other word notes by him, see my September 14th blog post.