Now available in the library: The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. Published in late October, the Historical Thesaurus is the product of over 40 years’ work by a team of editors and contributors based at the University of Glasgow’s Department of English Language and beyond. The Thesaurus is the first work to offer a complete inventory of meanings for a language, and its scope is impressive, ranging from Old English to contemporary usage. It contains 800,000 words and meanings based on the Oxford English Dictionary and The Thesaurus of Old English (1995), a related project.
It is easy to imagine a range of uses for such a rich resource. A literary critic seeking to elucidate the meaning of a word or phrase could not only use the thesaurus to uncover obsolete meanings of a word: for example, “silly” meaning physically weak (attested 1567-1633), scanty or meagre (1593-1767), of low rank (1568-1647). He or she could also find words with a similar sense which might have dropped out of use. Thus dissolute (c.1450-1577), ladylike (1586-1698) and water-weak (1612) are associated with “physically weak”. An historian of gender might be interested in the clusters of words describing unmarried women, unmarried men, and their respective states. And an historical novelist might mine the Thesaurus for Regency slang (synonyms of “rake”: rakeshame, profligate, rakehelly, rip or roué; goosy, spoony or niddle-noddle for “foolish”) or Tudor insults (dottle, doddypoll, want-wit, noddy-poll, skitbrains and dummel).
A classification structure and comprehensive index are provided to enable the user to navigate the Thesaurus. Be warned: your progress may be slowed by other tantalising entries in the index. As you zero in on fool, for example, entries for fooliaminy, foolocracy or foolosophy might divert you from your original course.
The prefatory material provides insights into the creation of the Thesaurus from the first announcement of the project by Michael Samuels, Professor of English Language at Glasgow University, in 1965, and onward, as work evolved to take advantage of emerging technologies and updates to the OED, and continued in spite of uncertain funding. The completion of the project also owes something to some sturdy metal filing cabinets, which protected slips corresponding to 13 years’ work from destruction in a fire in 1978.