About the Thesaurus

The Historical Thesaurus of English is a unique resource charting the semantic development of the huge and varied vocabulary of English. It is the first historical thesaurus ever produced for any language, containing almost every word in English from Old English to the present day. Of major interest to historians, philologists, linguists, and the general reader, the Thesaurus is an unrivalled resource for the historical study of the language. It is based on a comprehensive analysis of English as found in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and A Thesaurus of Old English (for words restricted to the Old English period of c.700-1150 AD). All these words and their dates of recorded use are displayed within a detailed semantic framework, offering a fascinating picture of the development of the vocabulary of English from its origins in Anglo-Saxon times to the present.

Such an arrangement casts new light on the relationship between the things and ideas people talk about and the words they use and have used in the past, as well as on the words themselves. By browsing through the Thesaurus, or examining one of its categories in detail, the reader will encounter a huge variety of intriguing words from many different sources, ranging from the rare or obsolete to those which have been in daily use for hundreds of years or introduced recently.

The Historical Thesaurus is organized into three major sections, reflecting the main activities and preoccupations of users of the language: I The External World, II The Mental World, and III The Social World. These in turn are divided into 377 major categories, such as Food, Thought, or War. Further categories and subcategories follow, moving from the most general ideas to the most specific. The semantic categories and subcategories are headed by phrases which define them and link to preceding sections. In the example below, the headings and numbering show that the teeth, at the seventh level of the semantic hierarchy, are part of the mouth, which is classified as a digestive organ within the higher category of digestive and excretive organs, which in turn are a part of the body:

Within these categories, words which share a high proportion of their meaning are organized by part of speech and presented in chronologically ordered lists. Each word is accompanied by its dates of recorded use and by any relevant restrictive labels given in the OED, such as ‘poetic’ (poet.) or ‘Australian’ (Austral.). Principles of categorization and the use of OED data are discussed in more depth in the Story of the Historical Thesaurus, and we provide some figures regarding the size of its database and depth of categorisation on our figures page.

The Historical Thesaurus is the product of over forty years of dedicated scholarship by many hands at the University of Glasgow and elsewhere. The editors would like to thank everyone who has contributed: university staff in Britain and abroad, research assistants, postgraduate students, computing staff, and data entry personnel. It is impossible to mention everyone by name, but the Acknowledgements page sets out those who had a major involvement. Maintaining a project of this size and scope is no easy matter, and we would also like to thank those who have funded the project and had faith in its eventual completion. Special thanks are due to the University of Glasgow and King’s College London as the main hosts of the project over the years, and other funders are listed on the Funders page.