Historical Thesaurus of the OED

This is an interesting new tool: Here’s the OUP page; here it is on Amazon; here’s a review in the Guardian. Has anyone seen or used this? It sounds like you would look up a word to discover parallel meanings to this word back in time. I suppose I can imagine a few uses for this. The first might be for writers of historical fiction who want to find out how to call someone an idiot in 1700, as Poole’s review mentions. But more interestingly for language study, the project levels what we study as kinds of definition creep–the perjoration or amelioration or generalization or narrowing of word definitions over time–the way that “sely” in 1400 might define a religiously possessed hermit comes to mean “silly” today. Like any thesaurus, it’s not actually an index of words, but of concepts, but in this case plumbed diachronically. So this is a historical way to trace the development of semantic sphere: I can look up “silly” (I haven’t done this–since I haven’t seen it–so I’m guessing here) and trace it back. Here’s a YouTube video from the OED about how to use it–with more excellent discussion about how to call someone an idiot through time. Why is that the example we all come up with?
What I want to use it for, though, is not merely to trace back concepts, but the metaphors used at different historical periods to define a concept. This would be an interesting way to capture the zeitgeist of a moment in time because it is so explicitly linguistically focused.


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s