Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary by Christian Kay, Jane Roberts, Michael Samuels and Irené Wotherspoon (eds) - review by Elspeth Barker

Elspeth Barker

Words, Glorious Words

Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary


Oxford University Press 3,952pp £250 until 31 January 2010; £275 thereafter

For forty-five years a team of linguists, primarily led by Christian Kay at the University of Glasgow, has laboured to produce the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. It contains historically organised synonyms for almost every word in the second edition of the OED, and in addition contains the whole range of Old English words that the OED does not define (the policy of the OED is not to include words that didn’t survive into Middle English; the HTOED team wanted to include the entire history of the language). It is by far the largest thesaurus ever attempted in any language.

We use a dictionary to look up a word; we will use the HTOED to look up a sense or a number of senses. It has no real precedent, and although it does at first seem daunting, with perseverance and concentration it becomes approachable; then you can see that soon it will provide support and entertainment, and soon after that it will have become an addictive companion, the two volumes stoutly flanking Shakespeare and the Bible on that shimmering desert island. 

In the second volume, the index, you find your word, which will come with a series of numbers. In the first volume, the actual thesaurus, you will track down your word, almost invisible now amid its throng of synonyms and associates, arranged beneath their numbers in historical order from their earliest appearances. I was struck by the very considerable number of Old English specific senses for slaughter and murder and dismemberment. For to smother or suffocate, alone: asmorian, awiergan, forsmorian, oflicgan, aþrysmian, and more.

It is worth noting that ‘synonym’ is rigidly defined by the editors, as per the OED: ‘Strictly, a word having the same sense as another (in the same language).’ Further, HTOED‘s goal is to categorise every possible sense in English, so if a word has no synonym, it still gets an entry, as with ethnomaniac. A new pleasure in the synonym lists is the gathering of phrases.

To provide a reassuring framework, the mighty enterprise is divided into three sections: the external world, the mental world and the social world. Within these sections are very many subdivisions, but for the amateur, initially, the numbering system will be guide enough. 

HTOED is not a conventional synonym finder, a more ambitious Roget. There is no nonsense about HTOED. Something is either a synonym or it isn’t. So, under vainglory, noun, it provides such synonyms as self-praise, self-glory, self-congratulation, self-flatterer, vainling. It does not provide vaguely close words, such as those given by Rodale’s Synonym Finder, among them pride, vanity, boasting, rodomontade, haughtiness, airs, cheekiness, insolence, arrogance, etc – any of which might be useful, but none of which means vainglory. The 1911 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus does not even give vainglory as an entry; rather, it is loosely categorised as a synonym for pride. Roget 1911 has a dozen synonyms for pride. By contrast, HTOED has several pages of sub-senses under pride, illustrating its profoundly rigorous approach.

To return to the text, and moving on from our forebears’ internecine moments, I am currently haunted by Milton’s lovely line, ‘the white pink and the pansy freak’d with jet’, and so I turned to the gentler pursuit of pink, noun. And having struggled down a rocky road, taking in a British territory, a wound by a sharp weapon, a potato, a detective, specific perfection and other canards, I came at last to paradise. Under the heading, particular flower/plant esteemed for flower, nine full-length luscious columns of lovely print on lovely paper offer every divinity of floral taxonomy. There are countless hundreds, amongst them sea violet and musk-gilliflower, floramour, poor man’s torment and capucin caper. There is even the thoughtful sixteenth-century ‘pouncil’ – any unidentified plant. One might linger there all day, enchanted as any lotos-eater.

All the same (of which more presently), as a daughter of Eve I wanted to seek out pink as a colour, and here I was quite confounded, for this distinctive hue was not given a name until the eighteenth century, apart from an ambiguous ‘pink-coloured’ in 1681. Although Mercutio may tell Romeo ‘I am the very pink of courtesy,’ and Romeo may reply, ‘Pink for flower,’ their badinage is not concerned with colour. Literature offers other words, but they all suggest redness – incarnation, vermeil, roseate. No pink for Shakespeare’s sisters. Mindful of Milton, I found ‘freak’d’ among other words of splashiness – spraing, rew, invein; Milton chose best and no contemporary meaning for ‘freak’d’ has that sharp, minute precision. 

I had great fun too tracing deviance from fourteenth-century braegde and faken, through other brusque terms – fraudful and cogged – then on to more dodgy glamour in the seventeenth century with charlatanical, stellionated, jank and subdititious, up to some mighty fine twentieth-century usages: pussyfoot, whiffle and best of all, phonus-balonus, associated of course with baloney, which I believe is what the American calls a low form of Bolognese sausage. 

In keeping with the theme of dodginess, it is worth considering that conveniently vague and noncommittal timeserver, nevertheless (see ‘all the same’, above) and its earlier presentations, sometimes in timeserving, flashy foreign tongues, to wit: nathemo, cum grano salis, malgré tout, and the sinister fourteenth-century ‘with the nonce’. Perhaps it’s best to skip that one, and plump for the really hopeless twentieth-century ‘ah well’. 

No words of mine can express the magnificence of this monument to our huge and often beautiful language. As one expects from Oxford, it is superbly designed, skilfully employing Oxford’s special versions of two well-known Gerard Unger typefaces, Swift and Argo. OUP intends to blend HTOED into a seamless electronic resource with the OED, at which point – perhaps two or three years from now – it will be more enduring even than Horatian bronze, and far beyond any conceivable ravages. In the meantime, this wonderful creation may be read with pleasure off lecterns all day in bed. 

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March