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THE HISTORICAL THESAURUS OF ENGLISH L. W. Collier C. J. Kay The purpose of this paper is to give an account of the work being done in the English Language Department of the University of Glasgow on the Historical Thesaurus of English. In particular we shall discuss some of the practical problems involved in producing a thesaurus which covers the entire vocabulary of English from Old English to the modern period. Although "thesaurus" over the years has been used to denote various kinds of dictionaries and encyclopedias, the term is now commonly taken to mean "a list of concepts or words arranged according to sense" (Concise Oxford Dictionary). In the simplest terms the Historical Thesaurus is a list of words "arranged according to sense," i.e. it is a thesaurus similar to Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases.1 The material will be presented within the framework of a system of headings, each followed by lists of all the words and phrases with their dates of currency ever recorded as synonyms or near synonyms for that heading. For ease of reference the semantic listing will be followed by a comprehensive alphabetical index. In printed form the finished work is expected to be about the size of a large desk dictionary such as Webster's Third International Dictionary or the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. The Historical Thesaurus differs from Roget both in its system of classification and in its inclusion of the lexis of Old and Middle English as well as that of the modern period. It is the inclusion of obsolete words and obsolete senses of current words which makes the Historical Thesaurus unique. While our own age is well-served by Roget's Thesaurus in its many revisions and adaptations, there is no comparable work for earlier stages of the language, nor have historical thesauri been compiled for any other of the relatively few languages which have continuous recorded histories. The finished work will be of primary importance to historical linguists concerned with the evolution of meaning, and to students of literature working on the lexis of particular historical periods. A scholar interested in the language and literature of Renaissance England, for example, will be able to turn to the Historical Thesaurus in order to examine the expression of particular concepts at the time or to study .the rate and nature of lexical change. The Historical Thesaurus will also offer new material to scholars in such fields as social history, the history of ideas, and general linguistics , and indeed to the large number of non-specialists who simply find language—and dictionaries—perennially fascinating. The most obvious problem facing the compilers of the Historical Thesaurus is the size of the undertaking. Our main source of material for the Thesaurus is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which contains over 400,000 entries in its 15,500 pages. In effect what we are doing is turning the OED inside out: going through each volume of the dictionary, compiling slips for the material to be included in the Thesaurus, then giving each slip a place in the semantic classification. At present our archive contains slips covering about 85% of the OED material as well as supplementary slips for the Old English 80 L. W. Collier and C. J. Kay81 period, and by the time the first stage of the project is completed we expect to have around 700,000 slips in the files awaiting transfer to the new classification . Strictly speaking, the work of classification cannot begin until all the slips are assembled, as it is impossible to predict which parts of the classification will be affected by the addition of new material, and even the very last bundle of slips might contain something which sets off a chain of changes. However, as a matter both of interest and of necessity, preliminary editorial work has begun, and will continue alongside slip-making for the next few years. Our present target date for completing the slips is 1982, and this will be followed by a period of intensive editing, leading, we hope, to publication in 1987. The Historical Thesaurus research team at present has twelve members, five of whom are working...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 80-89
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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