Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

From the World Wide Words e-mail list. (The associated website is here).

Review: Historical Thesaurus of the OED
Lexicographers know from historical example and the nature of the
job that they're in for a long haul. Samuel Johnson thought his
dictionary project would take three years, but even with the help
of his amanuenses it needed nine. James Murray worked on what was
then called the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles for
36 years, his labours being terminated only by death. Development
of the Historical Thesaurus began in 1967. Its current director,
Christian Kay, and another editor, Irené Wotherspoon, both joined
as research assistants two years later and so each has completed 40
years of unending slog.

The grand plan was to create a unique work of scholarship and that
is what it is - there's nothing like it in any other language. Most
thesauruses basically take a snapshot of the language as it is when
it is compiled (lexicographers call this a synchronic view). Its
editors will include literary or archaic terms and colloquial or
slang expressions that may one day become part of the standard
language, but essentially they're cataloguing a slice across one
moment in time. The Historical Thesaurus takes the other possible
stance: recording the words English has used for concepts across
the whole history of the language - a diachronic view.

Take "money" for example (a word much in our minds at the moment).
The entry fills a column and tells us that the earliest word for
the concept - in Old English - was "mynet", with "money" itself
turning up around 1290; a glance down the chronological list throws
up "gelt" (first recorded around 1529), "lour" (in use from 1567
on), "mint-sauce" (from 1812), and a host of others from the past
two centuries that we may recognise from our reading even if we
don't use them ourselves: "oof", "lettuce", "ackers", "bread",
"spondulicks", "moolah", "lolly", "loot", and "dosh". All these are
tagged with the date of their first known appearance and - if it
has - the date when it went out of use again.

This is treasure-trove, which careful writers can mine for nuggets
of vocabulary. 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 if -
for example - your character might have called money "dough" in
1800 (no, because it's first recorded in 1851) or what might have
been a suitable slang term for it in 1700 ("spankers", "cole" and
"rhino" are all possibilities).

The source of this knowledge, as the title shows, is the Oxford
English Dictionary. The compilers of the Historical Thesaurus took
every word in the OED and placed it within a framework of meaning
that they constructed, a monumental task that makes one's mind
reel, as does the thought of creating the framework itself.

Most thesauruses today use the classification scheme invented by
Peter Roget in 1852, but the compilers of the Historical Thesaurus
realised that this wouldn't be comprehensive enough and generated
their own. All knowledge is divided into three broad families: the
external world, the mental world, and the social world, numbered
from 01 to 03. These families are progressively subdivided into
more and more detailed classes. The class 03.10 is work, 03.10.13
is trade and commerce and is money. The classification
doesn't end there - is currency,
is coins and is foreign coins. This last entry
has hundreds of historical terms organised by country, such as the
Dutch stiver and the American sharpshin. To look up the index (the
second, larger, volume of the two-volume work), is to experience a
mass of numbers dancing before the eyes like every lottery draw of
all time rolled into one.

It's an extraordinary work. The pity is that it's so expensive that
only libraries, big institutions and a few well-heeled individuals
can afford it.

[Christian Kay, Jane Roberts, Michael Samuels and Irené Wotherspoon
[eds], The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary,
Oxford University Press, 22 October 2009; hardback, two volumes in
slipcase; ISBN-13:978-0-19-920899-9; ISBN-10:0-19-920899-9; the UK
publisher's price is £250 until January 2010, thereafter £275.]

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