Monday, October 26, 2009

Historical Thesaurus

By Henry Hitchings
Telegraph 23 Oct 2009

Yesterday saw the publication of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. This two-volume work is a monumental feat of scholarship, the fruit of more than 40 years' labour. In a world infatuated with speed, it is a testament to the value of patiently accumulated learning.

A thesaurus differs from a dictionary in that it groups entries by subject, rather than alphabetically. There were thesauruses in ancient Greece and in fifth-century India. The first English example was produced in 1852 by Peter Mark Roget, the son of a Swiss clergyman. Roget hit upon the expedient idea of grouping synonyms within larger topical classes.

We use volumes of the kind Roget devised to revitalise our writing, finding fresh terms to replace ones that have become tired through overuse. But this Historical Thesaurus is the first comprehensive historical thesaurus of any of the world's languages, and embraces the contents of that other magnificent word-hoard, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Old English vocabulary not in the OED. This represents the language from AD 700 to the present.

The work enables microscopic study of almost all our recorded vocabulary. We see words not in isolation, but through their relationships. To quote the linguist David Crystal: "The OED gave us individual trees, but never a sight of the whole forest or helpful pathways through it. The Thesaurus does precisely that." It is a hugely effective tool for researching not just the histories of words, but also intellectual and social history.

Work on the Historical Thesaurus was begun in 1964 by Michael Samuels, then Professor of English Language at the University of Glasgow. On his retirement, the editorship passed to his colleague Christian Kay. Only in the 1980s was the work in progress transferred to computer, having narrowly avoided destruction in 1978 when fire galloped through the terrace house in Glasgow that was then the project's home. Over the course of its compilation there have been four editors – besides Samuels and Kay, Jane Roberts and Irené Wotherspoon – and 16 different people responsible for managing its database.

The editors have organised approximately 800,000 meanings into conceptual fields, which show the chronological development of themes and ideas. The three fundamental categories are the External World, the Mind, and Society. These are broken down into less broad domains: the External World is divided into the Earth, life, physical sensibility, matter, existence, relative properties, and the supernatural. The text eventually discriminates more than 236,000 categories; a giant index facilitates cross-referencing.

A work of this kind encourages us to think about language in a way that a dictionary does not. An obvious difference between the type that is a staple of domestic bookshelves and this one is that it contains vast numbers of words that are technical, archaic or obsolete. While it may not be a great help to a student trying to buff up an essay, if you are writing a novel set in the Victorian demi-monde you can find out exactly which words would have been current and which it would be anachronistic to include.

Let us suppose I want to know about the history of words used of people considered dirty. "Hog" has had this sense since the early 15th century, "daggle-tail" was first employed in the 1570s and is last recorded in 1881, and "scrubber" is first attested in 1959. In my novel of Victorian loucheness, there can be hogs and maybe daggle-tails, but no scrubbers.

"Cinema" – in the sense of the venue for film screenings – is first attested in 1913, five years after "picture palace". "Movie house" can be spotted the following year, "nickelodeon" in 1921. "Ticket-chopper" first makes an appearance in 1915, "usherette" in 1925, and "drive-in" in 1950 – two years later than "ozoner", an American slang term for the drive-in cinema.

We find that "cinema" was used of a film show in 1909, seven years after the first sighting of "cinematograph". "Sneak preview" was in use as a noun as early as 1938, and as a verb from 1950. "Film festival" does not put in an appearance until 1951, the year that Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca opened the first Berlin International Film Festival.

Quick examples cannot do justice to the work's scope, authority and seductive browsability. But, at nearly 4,500 pages, the Historical Thesaurus is twice as long as Dr Johnson's dictionary, and the volumes are unwieldy. It costs £250. However, publication on CD-ROM is planned, and perhaps, as with the OED, the option to subscribe temporarily online may entice those deterred by the price of the printed version.

None of this is to detract from the richness and rigour of the editors' achievement. This truly is a counterpart to the OED. It prompts the thought that the noun "thesaurus" comes from a Greek word meaning "storehouse" or "treasure". The etymology seems especially apt.

Henry Hitchings is the author of 'The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English', published by John Murray