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Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary: Crystal Explains

05/12/2014 11:36 GMT | Updated 01/02/2015 10:59 GMT

I may as well be a biased reviewer of David Crystal's books given that Words in Time and Place is the 30th book by the author to find a place on my special Crystal shelf.

The importance of this latest book (actually no, Crystal published another book whilst I was perusing this one!) is not just that it is another Crystal-standard reader-friendly title but also a much-needed boost for a lexicological work that seems to have gone out of fashion - thesaurus.

In a recent conversation I had with a Renaissance scholar the topic touched upon dictionaries and thesauri (or thesauruses) and his initial reaction was, "But does anyone still use a thesaurus? It sounds old-fashioned surely!"

Roget seems to be a forgotten name gathering dust on the shelves?! The impression is that thesauri have been ousted by dictionaries - and yet they are not the same, as many people seem to confuse. Dictionaries can in no way make thesauri extinct as the latter are an equally useful reference in language learning. The dictionary and the thesaurus serve different purposes for our linguistic needs:

"We use a dictionary when we encounter a word and want to find out its meaning (or some other aspect of its use). We use a thesaurus when we encounter a meaning and want to find out the words that best express it."

In this beautifully written book, Crystal explores the fascinating relations between words in time and space as registered by Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED).

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HTOED is a monumental work that extends the semantic possibilities of Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Crystal's book is an introduction to HTOED but it can be well read as a book in its own right. He selects 15 semantic fields which are as comprehensively representative of aspects and concepts of our life as possible. The linguistic and extralinguistic differences between these fields are often striking and Crystal's subsequent explanations and inferences truly engaging.

The most obvious difference between a dictionary and thesaurus perhaps lies in the attitudes and connotations that emerge in a thesaurus work. Such encyclopedic and pragmatic nuances are not easily noticeable in the dictionary due to the alphabetical layout where members of a semantic field may live miles from each other. In the thesaurus, however, you can observe the relationship between the words in a semantic field. For instance, Crystal points out the gender stereotypes in words for "old person"; the words with negative connotations mostly refer to women.

The words for "types of pop music" are difficult to classify at all as new genres spring up daily, as Crystal writes. Some of the semantic fields, like the one of words for "inns and hotels", provide a fascinating insight into the social landscape of earlier centuries as many words have shifted their meanings today. Words for "money", similarly, open a window into the past, especially where pecuniary values were often measured by other goods (fee, for instance, used to mean "livestock"!). Words for "privy" and "being drunk" illustrate the highly imaginative linguistic creativity to refer to the loo and Friday nights..., respectively. The semantic field of words for "dying", on the contrary, displays solemn neutrality and relative literalness.

"If there is a social imbalance in society, as there has long been in the case of words relating to age and gender, the semantic fields in the lexicon will inevitably reflect it."

Crystal presents each semantic field in a timeline which allows following the chronological development of the words; where relevant, he subclassifies the categories in the timeline. A map is drawn for each semantic field and its presence at the end rather than at the beginning of the chapters helps to see and sum up for oneself the semantic field in its integrity and in relation to our life.

So next time you engage in language play, like writing a sonnet in Shakespeare's tongue or a dialogue using words which start with the same letter (some people are so weird!), it is a thesaurus (the historical one, in the first case) you will need, not a dictionary. And if I cannot convince, Crystal certainly can!

You can purchase Words in Time and Place directly from Oxford University Press (OUP) or other book shops across the UK and abroad.