5 things you can do with the Historical Thesaurus of the OED
The Historical Thesaurus of the OED is a unique 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, and contains almost every word in English from Old English to the present day.
With 800,000 words and meanings, in 235,000 entry categories, the thesaurus offers a complete sense inventory for English, from Old English to the present day.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day on which the Historical Thesaurus of the OED was first proposed, we’ve taken a look at five of the things you can do with it…
1. See how society changed
As Christian Kay notes in her article, looking at a series of synonyms together is revelatory about the thinking of a society. Exploring the category ‘contemptible person’ shows how often humans have been equated with animals (worm, whelp, marmoset, grasshopper, polecat, and stockfish, for example) and how many new synonyms were being thought up in the inventive sixteenth century.
2. Get an overview of a topic
Looking to learn about the history of a modern technology? Browsing through the ‘computing or information technology’ section of the online Historical Thesaurus provides a quick survey of changing terminology, like cyberspace to fifo, and allows you to discover words that are perhaps older than you’d think – like offline and online (both 1950).
3. Make sure your novel is historically accurate
Writing about the Elizabethan period and want to say that one of your characters is pregnant? The Historical Thesaurus gives you the options gravid, pagled, and great-bellied, but can warn you to steer clear of the anachronisms gestant, undelievered, and in the family way.
4. Insult your friends the Shakespearean way
Don’t just call your friend a fool, call him or her a fool’s-head or a cuckoo. Other options from the same period are niddipol, nigion, noddypeak, gowk, stirk, and fonkin.
5. Go exploring!
If you don’t have anything specific in mind to search, you can browse online. The thesaurus is initially divided into ‘the external world’, ‘the mind’, and ‘society’. Each click expands the menu, offering increasingly specific options. For instance, follow the path ‘the external world’ > ‘matter’ > ‘properties of materials’ > ‘relating to weight [adjective]’ > ‘heavy’ will give you a list of interesting synonyms, from chargeous and plumbeous to peisy and sad. Start a journey, and see where you end up!
The Historical Thesaurus is available as part of a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary Online.