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Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary: With additional material from A Thesaurus of Old English [Hardcover]

Christian Kay , Jane Roberts , Michael Samuels , Irené Wotherspoon
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
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Book Description

22 Oct 2009 0199208999 978-0199208999 Slp Har/Ch
The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED) is a unique new resource charting the semantic development of the huge and varied vocabulary of English. It is the first comprehensive historical thesaurus ever produced for any language, containing almost every word in English from Old English to the present day, and is a magnificent resource for the historical study of the language. It is based on a detailed analysis of English as found in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and also draws on A Thesaurus of Old English. Conceived and compiled by the English Language Department of the University of Glasgow over a period of some 45 years, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is a groundbreaking analysis of meaning in the history of English.

Content and Structure
The thesaurus organization follows a unique thematic system of classification, with entries arranged in a comprehensive semantic hierarchy according to their meanings. Each individual synonym is presented in chronological order according to the first recorded date of the word's use in English as listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, with earliest synonyms given first.

There are three major sections in the HTOED, reflecting the main activities and preoccupations of users of the language:

I The external world

II The mental world

III The social world

These in turn are divided into 354 major categories, such as Food and drink, Thought, or War. Further categories and subcategories follow, moving from the most general ideas to the most specific. Overall, the HTOED contains around 800,000 meanings, organized into more than 236,000 categories and subcategories.
The semantic categories and subcategories are headed by phrases which define them and link to preceding sections. In the abridged example given here, the headings and numbering show that Terms of endearment, at the fourth level of the semantic hierarchy, are part of Love, which is classified within the higher category of Emotion, which in turn comes under The mind.

02 The mind
02.02 Emotion
02.02.22 Love
.... Terms of endearment

The HTOED contains obsolete, historical, and archaic vocabulary, as well as the vocabulary of current English; it covers scientific, technical, and specialist terminology as well as slang, dialect, and informal language, and regional varieties of English from all parts of the world. Each term is precisely entered into its place in this comprehensive hierarchy of meaning, according to its meaning and date, and is accessible either by browsing at any level of the hierarchy, or by looking up a particular word in its alphabetical place via the Index. The Index itself lists nearly one million references and ensures a comprehensive lookup and accessibility of the full text.

The final printed work is presented in two volumes: Volume 1 is the Thesaurus, while Volume 2 is the alphabetical Index listing the synonyms in Volume 1. Readers may thus approach the content of the Thesaurus in different ways: either by looking up a single lexical item in the Index and being directed to the appropriate section in the main Thesaurus, or by browsing by semantic category directly, and seeing words in their context of both historical development and the overall organization of meaning. There is an Introductory essay by the Editors and a Foreword written by Lord Randolph Quirk, together with a specially commissioned fold-out chart showing the principal levels of the semantic classification.

The HTOED is a unique resource for scholars of all types - linguists and language specialists, historians, literary commentators, etc. - as well as being a fascinating resource for everyone with an interest in the English language and its historical development. It is the ideal complement to the OED itself, allowing the OED to be accessed and its contents viewed in wholly new ways.

Brief History of the Project

Like any large and ambitious project, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED) has a long and varied history.

In 1965 Michael Samuels, then Professor of English Language at the University of Glasgow, gave a lecture to the Philological Society in which he announced that his department was embarking on a project to create a historical thesaurus of English. The proposal was based on a thorough analysis of the sense inventory of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and the intention was that the work would be carried out by staff and students at Glasgow University.

Work started soon after and over the following years the project grew in momentum and continued under the dedicated leadership of the University's project team, passing in time to Professor Christian Kay to guide it through the later and final stages. From the late 1970s onwards, as data collection proceeded, the team focused increasingly on the immense task of devising a new system of classification which would do justice to such a huge amount of material. Such a system had to be flexible enough to accommodate changes in the vocabulary over the years and the cultural changes they reflected, which led to similarities but also important differences when compared to other less comprehensive and less detailed thesaurus classifications.
Compiling the HTOED was a huge undertaking, and a huge challenge, with material continually being revised and reclassified as the project progressed. But finally in July 2008, after more than 40 years' work, and many, many person-hours of dedication and hard work, the last entry was slotted into place, and the work of producing the print publication could begin.

Additional References
The Historical Thesaurus includes almost every word in English from Old English to the present day, drawing on the Oxford English Dictionary, and supplemented by the following specialist dictionaries of Old English:

Jane Roberts and Christian Kay with Lynne Grundy, A Thesaurus of Old English, King's College London Medieval Studies XI, 1995, 2 vols., xxxv + 1555. Second edition, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. Online version 2005

Bosworth, Joseph, 1868. A Compendious Anglo-Saxon and English Dictionary. London: J. R. Smith.

Bosworth, Joseph & T. Northcote Toller, eds. 1898. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press; T. Northcote Toller, ed. 1921. An Anglo- Saxon Dictionary: Supplement. London: Oxford University Press; Alistair Campbell, ed. 1972. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Enlarged Addenda and Corrigenda. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Clark Hall, John R. 1960. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 4th edn with a supplement by Herbert D. Meritt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dictionary of Old English. Antonette DiPaolo Healey & Richard L. Venezky, ed. A Microfiche Concordance to Old English. Toronto, 1980; Richard L. Venezky & Sharon Butler, ed. A Microfiche Concordance to Old English: The High Frequency Words. Toronto, 1985. The five letters then edited by the Dictionary of Old English team were also consulted: Fasc. D, 1986; Fasc C, 1988; Fasc. B, 1991; Fasc. Æ, 1992; Fasc. Beon, 1992; Fasc. A, 1994.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 3952 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; Slp Har/Ch edition (22 Oct 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199208999
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199208999
  • Product Dimensions: 15.5 x 24.8 x 33.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 390,453 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description


An important work (William Baker)

The potential value of this work- its offerings to future researchers- is so huge that it is difficult at first to grasp its scope ... one of the most extraordinary and impressive scholarly projects of the past 50 years (Charlotte Brewer, The Review of English Studies)

A masterpiece. (Chriss Moss, Time Out Magazine)

An unprecedented resource. (Steven Poole, Saturday Guardian)

One-of-a-kind...this is a landmark achievement that all academics and large research libraries should own. (Library Journal, Issue 12/15)

Historical novelists, historians of ideas, literary scholars will find these volumes indespensable. (David Wooton, TLS)

You could spend years browsing in this wonderful pasture. (Philip Pullman, The Guardian)

No one should even consider writing a historical novel without it there on the desk. (Philip Pullman, The Guardian)

No words of mine can express the magnificence of this monument to our huge and often beautiful language. (Elspeth Barker, Literary Review)

As one expects from Oxford, it is superbly designed. (Elspeth Barker, Literary Review)

This is what you call a proper reference tool, as well as an awesome tribute to the English language. (Christopher Hart, Sunday Times)

[A] magnificent, 4,000 page treasure chest. (Christopher Hart, Sunday Times)

The OED gave us individual trees, but never a sight of the whole forest or helpful pathways through it. The thesaurus does precisely that. (David Crystal)

Surely one of the most extraordinary books of reference ever compiled. (Sir Roy Strong)

A monumental feat of scholarship. (Henry Hitchings, The Daily Telegraph)

The 'Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary' will be outstanding and indispensable and so much fun! (Melvyn Bragg)

Finally the OED has a worthy counterpart. (Ammon Shea)

An addictive hoard for those who love words. (Jean Aitchison)

A word-lover's dream. (Barbara Kingsolver)

I can hardly imagine any reference book more valuable for the historical novelist. (Philip Pullman)

About the Author

Professor Christian Kay, MA, AM, DipGenLing, University of Glasgow Professor Jane Roberts, MA, DPhil, DLitt, University of London Professor Michael Samuels, MA, DLitt, FRSE, formerly University of Glasgow Irené Wotherspoon, MA, MLitt, formerly University of Glasgow

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
If you find words and language fascinating, and if you're prepared to give some time to indulging your fascination, then this is certainly worth the money (dosh, the shiny, hoot, grigs, cross and pile, will-do-all). It provides an amazing jouney through meanings and concepts and ideas, and the words that were used to describe them over the centuries.

If you're looking for a quick word for your daily crossword puzzle, though, this is probaby not where you would go. The words are organised conceptually rather than alphabetically and that means you have to hunt it down firstly through the index, wading your way through the many different senses of the word that are listed there.

But if you enjoy the journey, and have some time to devote to it, then you will love that it is organised this way - because everywhere you look, there are things surrounding you that relate to what you are looking at. So if you have trouble finding a word in exactly the sense you are thinking, you just look at the entries near to the one you are studying, and maybe it will be there.

Yes, the numbers in the index for each entry can seem cumbersome - but it's all for a purpose: it all helps you see words within their contexts and ultimately, that's a much more efficient and sensible way to organise things. You just have to spend time. And, when you do, it becomes a wonderful, absorbing, addictive discovery, where you get to see how the things you are saying today would have been said by your ancestors (majority, lineage, eldrings, fore-elders, ieldran). Thriven and thro!
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
I rarely bother to give reviews for books - but this, oh this ... it landed on my desk 5 hours ago and I haven't been able to drag myself away since.

I can't believe this thesaurus - it is rich in words, joy and discovery and is a journey back into our past from whence I dare anyone to drag themselves.

I am a historian and historical novelist - for which this thesaurus is utterly indispensable (how in the world have I managed without it to this point??) - but anyone who loves words should lust for this publication.

It is, as it so elegantly taught me 30 minutes ago, utterly unsmutched.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mind-boggling. 23 Feb 2010
In declining the Nobel Prize in 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre commented that `a writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form'.

Perhaps, however, an institution--in this case represented by the Glasgow University team that over 40 years compiled this quite extraordinary resource-- could be considered as a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not only would such consideration be, I think, more than merited, but would constitute a move away from the recognition of the individual writer in favour of recognising a long-term collaborative research project, particularly one which underscores the debt which the English language owes to other tongues and times. Such an award might also send out a warning regarding the climate of financial immediacy prevalent in today's universities, which too often demote educational considerations to those of a second order of importance. The prize money could, potentially, be used to ensure that as many public libraries as possible are supplied with this resource.

On considering the research which has gone into even individual entries, you don't end up wondering at how long the research project took but, rather, how they managed to do it at all, never mind in only 40 years. Mind-boggling.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a masterpiece of reference 4 Jan 2010
This is not the sort of book you buy on a whim. This is a book you will own with pride and treasure all your life. It is fascinating, stimulating, enchanting, engrossing...a dream for people who love words and are interested in their origins. Absolutely faultless (we hope).
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A treasure house of the English language 6 Dec 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A tremendous amount of research must have gone into its production, beautifully bound, a really scholarly production and a must for anyone interested in the history of the English language. Would have given five stars except for the steep learning curve of the indexing system used (not that I can think of any simpler way!) but well worth taking the time and patience to master it. Be prepared to spend many fascinating hours just browsing.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Semantic heaven 2 Jan 2012
By Nick
It takes a while to learn how to coordinate the use of these two academic volumes but can provide hours of interest even fun with each investigation. For a more effective, faster and user friendly way of researching the historical derivation of words, an electronic version would be preferred. But even so it was well worth the price as a unique etymological source of information - not just a large dictionary - a golden treasure trove of English
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