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Thesaurus Rex Thesaurus Rex
Culture

Thesaurus Rex

by Mark Peters

November 8, 2009

Forty-four years in the making: the world's first historical thesaurus.Ever wonder how people really talked in the 1800s, or 1500s, or earlier?You can stop building the time machine. Such questions are now easier to answer than ever before, with the publication-after 44 years of work-of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. At almost 4,000 pages and about 800,000 meanings, this mind-boggling reference work is the biggest thesaurus ever and the world's first historical thesaurus: It takes the enormity of the OED and arranges it thematically and chronologically. A glance at any page is a look at language evolution from Old English to the present, and it's no less startling and amazing than watching sea slime slowly morph into monkeys and Neanderthals. Michael Samuels, a University of Glasgow Professor of English Language, was the founder of the HTOED back in 1965, as the Herculean task of data collection began. The project took many body shots over the years-mostly due to never-ending funding difficulties-but it suffered a near-fatal blow in 1978. By email, editor Christian Kay (who has worked on the HTOED since 1969) described the near disaster: "The department was housed in an old terraced house, which went on fire (as we say in Glasgow); the cause was never discovered. Luckily the blaze was spotted fairly quickly by students in a nearby building. The building was gutted but the thesaurus, which then existed only as paper slips in a single copy, was saved because it was housed in metal filing drawers inside metal cabinets. After that we did all slips in triplicate and stored two copies elsewhere."That sounds pretty primitive in the era of Wordnik, OED online, and a kabillion other online dictionaries. We take the use of computers for granted, but it wasn't always that way. In addition to being a unique word project, the HTOED was a pioneer in computer use in the humanities. Kay recalls, "...(computers) were common enough in science, but very expensive. We got our first one in 1981, mainly in order to prepare a tape for the publisher, Oxford University Press, who were moving into electronic publication. The first one was a Superbrain, a large, noisy machine which everyone regarded with awe." That's a far cry from the present. As Kay happily says, "Now I can put the whole thing on a memory stick."To understand what's so awesome about the HTOED requires an understanding of what's so lame about a regular thesaurus, which typically consists of piles of words that are synonyms-or so they appear. The fact is, few words are really synonymous, and the HTOED addresses this problem with subcategory after subcategory of finely tuned meanings. For example, "magically" would be specific enough a category for most thesauruses, but the HTOED includes sub-meanings such as "by miracle" and "in the manner of necromancy." A careful writer need never write "veneficiously" ("by means of malignant sorcery") when they mean "theurgically" ("by white magic"). After all, magic isn't all the same anymore than robots or lizards are, and the HTOED maps the differences.This specificity is displayed throughout three broad headings-the external world, the mental world, and the social world-which are subdivided into 236,400 categories and 797,120 meanings. I don't even want to know the kinds of migraines that were involved in selecting where certain topics and subtopics went. As Kay said on the OUP blog, even without funding and fire disasters, 44 years might be considered speedy work: "If you are faced with, say, 10,000 slips containing words which have something to do with Food or Music, arriving at an acceptable classification is not the work of a few hours."Besides word geeks and history buffs, the HTOED is a godsend for writers, especially writers of historical fiction, TV, or movies. As Michael Quinion wrote in World Wide Words, "There's no excuse any more for anachronisms. If you're creating an historical novel or film or adapting a classic for television, you can check in this monumental agglomeration..." So let's say I wanted to write a short story about one of my favorite topics: dogs. I can quickly find words under "Dog" for yelping ("bawling," "yawping," "yow-yowing"), love of dogs ("philocynism," "canophilia"), and dogdom itself ("dogkind," "canility," "dogginess"). I can locate Old English terms for "doggish" such as "hunden" and "hundlic" along with the humorous 16th century term "canicular." I can see that a sheepdog might have been called a "shepherd's dog" in the 1400s, and a terrier was called an "earth-dog" in the 1600s. I have more information that I could ever need.For now, the $360 tag is going to put this one out of almost everybody's price range, so get thee to a library. But Kay told me about a potential digital oasis that is already making me thirsty: "They plan to run HTOED alongside the online OED so that people can toggle back and forth between the two." Until Steve Jobs makes an affordable time machine, that should get the job done.
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Thesaurus Rex