Photo: University of Glasgow

Pioneering English thesaurus published

Photo: University of Glasgow

Professor Michael Samuels - Photo: University of Glasgow

After 45 years of work by the English Language department at the University of Glasgow, the world’s first historical thesaurus has been published.

The project is the culmination of almost half a century’s laborious efforts by researchers, staff, students and volunteers.

The aim of the project, which was the brainchild of Professor Michael Samuels in 1964, was to bring together the meaning of every word that has ever existed in the English language alongside their corresponding dates of use.

The words are listed in chronological order, earliest first, along with their meanings and the contexts in which they were used.

The completed work contains 800,000 meanings, across 230,000 categories, collected together in 4,500 pages. In its completed form, the thesaurus consists of two huge volumes.

Professor Christian Kay, one of the project’s four editors, explained how the thesaurus will act as a map to the history of our language.

She said: “The main difference between our thesaurus and Roget’s Thesaurus is that we go right back to the beginnings of English.

“In addition to getting the words arranged by their meanings, we provide the dates during which they were current in English. We include obsolete words which are no longer in use or are only found in very special contexts.

Professor Kay went on to say that the lifespans of words can vary greatly, although all have been included in the collection.

She explained: “Words have different survival rates, so there are maybe 7,000 words which have been in English since the very early days and there are other words that maybe only lasted for a few years.”

Professor Kay also praised the people, editors and volunteers who had worked on the project over the years.

She said: “Over 200 people had some hand in this. I would just like to say thank you to all of them.”

The broadcaster Melvyn Bragg praised the thesaurus, but also noted its more quirky entries.

He said: “The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary will be outstanding and indispensable and so much fun!

“Who would have thought that ‘smacker’ (one who gives loud kisses) came in 1611 — at the same time as the first King James Bible.”


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