Spring 2010

A Word By Any Other Name

– Sarah L. Courteau

How has regard for the thesaurus fallen so low?

Confess that you regularly consult a thesaurus, and you call your writing skills and even your intelligence into question, such is the ill repute into which this worthy reference has fallen. In a diatribe published in The Atlantic some years ago, Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman (about the making of The Oxford English Dictionary), lambasted Peter Mark Roget, the compiler of the granddaddy that spawned today’s myriad online and school-bag versions. Many writers I know scoff when asked whether they ever crack one. Of course, using a thesaurus—in its basic form, a book that groups words with similar or related meanings—can result in travesties against the language, and even common sense, when a novice plucks a word he doesn’t understand from an entry and substitutes it for thought. But to blame Roget for these crude mash-ups (the improvement of the phrase “his earthly fingers” into “his chthonic digits” is but one of Winchester’s amusing examples) is like blaming Henry Ford when a blind man takes a Taurus for a spin.

A thesaurus can extract that word that’s on the tip of your tongue but can’t quite reach your lips. It reacquaints you with words you've forgotten and presents ones you don’t know. It suggests relationships but usually doesn't spell them out—like a hostess who invites you to a party of well-connected guests where you’re expected to circulate and make your own introductions. In our hyper-searchable world, in which shelf browsing and even book skimming are on the wane, the thesaurus reminds us that precision isn't always a matter of predestined calibration. It can still be an informed choice.

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED)—which contains almost every word from the days of Beowulf to the present, some 920,000 words and expressions in all—seems the sort of resource that has been sitting on reference shelves for decades. Yet it is the first historical thesaurus produced for any language, and made its debut only late last year. Based on the magnificent edifice that is The Oxford English Dictionary, and also drawing on A Thesaurus of Old English, the HTOED has been in the works since 1964, when University of Glasgow English professor Michael Samuels began plugging away at it.

The HTOED’s editors boast that it provides the context other thesauruses lack. It is arranged into three major sections devoted to the external, mental, and social worlds, which are in turn divided into 354 categories (Food and drink, Thought, etc.), and then further categories and subcategories, from the most general to the most specific. (Roget divided his thesaurus into six broad classes, though most casual users simply flip to the index, unaware of his taxonomy.) Each word is listed with the corresponding year of first and, if applicable, last recorded use. Under the word piety, for instance, you’ll find a list of words that have meant piety over the centuries, and then sub-entries for words that have to do with, but are not the same as, piety. Sanctimoniousness, a subcategory, lists words including hiwung (Old English), lip-holiness (1591), and mawwormism (1850).

The HTOED is only two volumes—one consists of entries, the other is an index—to the 20 that compose the OED’s second edition. Missing are all those quotations that make the OED such a wealth of, well, context; it won’t offer enough linguistic hand-holding to stop the abuse that has given thesauruses a bad name. (Thesaurus abusers flock to Thesaurus.com anyway, and likely aren't interested in Old English words for love.) The HTOED’s lists, no matter how finely tuned, confirm what wordsmiths have known all along: The variety and coloration of the language make a precision-engineered thesaurus impossible. Reading the HTOED is a fascinating journey through 1,300 years of linguistic history, each entry a series of signposts to not-yet-scrutable destinations. It will send you straight to the dictionary, which is as it should be.

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Sarah L. Courteau is literary editor of The Wilson Quarterly

Reviewed: "Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary" edited by Christian Key, Jane Roberts, Michael Samuels, and Irene Wotherspoon, Oxford University Press, 2010. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Nick Sherman