Historical Thesaurus and Language Learning: The Possibilities

23/10/2015 15:39 BST | Updated 22/10/2016 10:12 BST

Recently, Dr Susan Rennie from the University of Glasgow discovered the manuscript of James Boswell's Scottish Dictionary. There is a reference to it and a statement of intention in Boswell's Life of Johnson but no one was sure if the dictionary actually had been written. Now the University of Glasgow is set upon a task of mounting the first Historical Thesaurus of Scots. It follows the pattern of the monumental Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED). The outcome is bound to be useful and important on so many levels - from cultural to historical to linguistic and educational. And it is a good time to reflect upon the role of thesauri in language learning and why they should be more widely used, in view of the most gigantic of all - the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.


The most well-known thesaurus of the English language was Roget's Thesaurus (1805) which stood the test of time for well over a century. When in 1965 Michael Samuels from the University of Glasgow outlined a project for a historical thesaurus of the English language, his audience at the Philological Society would have found the plan ambitious if not impossible.

Tracing the emergence, currency, and meanings of a word is one thing... Tracing how a meaning emerged and came to be expressed in words is something else entirely. It had never been done for any language, and here was a man ready to attempt it for English, a language with an unbroken written record of well over a millennium.

Randolph Quirk, Foreword, Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

It took 44 years of admirable labour, love and professionalism to complete it. From Old English to the modern days, the Historical Thesaurus is a linguistic pool where we see not just words but meanings of words swim by and across other meanings, often aligning, colliding or breaking away. With about 800,000 meanings cited and nearly 4000 pages, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is one of the must-have books in everyone's library. It comes in two volumes, the Thesaurus and the Index, and covers almost all the words in the English language throughout its development.

Some people get confused about the difference between dictionaries and thesauri. A dictionary and thesaurus can contain the same amount of words and word meanings but the way they present them is significantly different. For instance, the Oxford English Dictionary, which the Historical Thesaurus supplements, is a linguistic treasury of word biographies but we need its Thesaurus to see the cultural, social, pragmatic and other dimensions shaped throughout the rich history of the English language.

David Crystal, the all-round God of language, is so spellbound by the Thesaurus that he has written a wonderful book about it called Words in Time and Place, which explores the historical attitudes and connotations that emerge in this beautiful palace of English words and meanings.

The Historical Thesaurus divides into three main areas - the external world, the mental world, the social world - each with their many subsections. You can choose an area of interest and explore the semantic possibilities and developments through time. You can recreate an authentic dialogue set, say, in Chaucer's era, by looking thematically for words available at the time for the notions you want to express, and thus avoid anachronisms.

Perhaps the greatest use of the Historical Thesaurus is the way it can contribute to language learning. Thesauri are sadly not as popular with language learners as dictionaries but their function is unique and equally important in the process of acquiring a new language. In this respect, the Historical Thesaurus is an indispensable tool for English language learners who are as likely to be lost for words for a meaning they want to express as in need to look up a word they do not know yet. Consulting the Historical Thesaurus can boost a learner's vocabulary in a meaningful, logical and memorable way. Moreover, it will help perceive the structure, nature and complexity of the English language in its own context.

Finally, etymology and words are not merely a lexicologist's care but can become a healthy passion for everyone. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is one of those treasure books that give you wings. It is a compulsory volume in every home.