The Historical Thesaurus of the OED

Sunday 27 December 2009

The Oxford University Press is continuing to push the envelope on reference books, with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a 3952-page behemoth that not only includes every word in the OED, but traces meanings through history as well. It took 44 years to write, and weighs 14½ pounds.

It looks like pure lexicographical porn. There are some detractors, though, specifically about the classification scheme. The Amazon page has an annotated sample page, which shows that “express ill-humor” is categorized as “02.02.21.05.04.01”, hardly a friendly scheme. I’m used to the Roget system, which is also numerical, but doesn’t hew so slavishly to a strict hierarchy, so those same concepts can be found at 951.15, a number better fitted to my short-term memory capacity. I can imagine flipping back and forth quite a bit between index and content: “02.02.21.what?”

But this still looks to be a very impressive achievement, the first and maybe last of its kind. I’ll have to find a physical copy some place to further examine (peruse, study, inspect, scrutinize, check up on).

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