How to use the Historical Thesaurus

By Christian Kay and Marc Alexander, University of Glasgow
Please note: the links in this article require subscriber access to the OED Online. A quick tour of the Historical Thesaurus is available on open access.

The Historical Thesaurus of the OED is a semantic index to the OED. Because it is organized by meaning rather than alphabetically, it offers a unique new perspective on the material in the OED, unlocking information which would otherwise largely be concealed. From the OED we learn in detail how particular words have developed. The Thesaurus adds a new dimension by showing words alongside their synonyms and in relation to words of more general or more specific meaning. Moving between the OED and the Thesaurus enables exploration of the English language in hitherto unknown ways.

Getting started

Your starting point can be either the OED itself, where over two thirds of the senses have a link to the Historical Thesaurus, or via the Thesaurus itself. From the full entry in the OED search, use the Thesaurus link to be taken to the category where the word occurs. There you will see the word itself, its synonyms, and the date of its first recorded occurrence in English. If you start from the Thesaurus itself, you will be taken to the semantic categories, where you can select the meaning you want. You can return at any point to the full range of OED information, such as the word’s etymology, or the period when it was in use.


One of the main purposes of the Historical Thesaurus is to display synonyms for a word, including those no longer in use. If you look up nose, for example, you will find a large set of words for this object from Old English onwards. From there, you can move down the hierarchy and open up categories of words for Types of nose, and Person having particular types of nose; even the humble nostril has an extensive range of synonyms. You can find out whether categories of other body parts, such as ear or mouth, are similarly rich in synonyms, and compare the types of words that occur in different categories. Are they derived from the function of the body part, its appearance, or some other factor? Are their first occurrences clustered in particular historical periods?

Choosing a meaning

Words with more than one meaning will appear in more than one category of the Historical Thesaurus. If you are presented with a list of possibilities, the summary of Thesaurus headings at the top of each entry will help you find the meaning you want. You can narrow your search by entering through one of the categories listed on the Thesaurus page. Thus, clicking External world, then Living world, then Body, then External parts, will take you to the ‘nose’ example given above. Headings may be abbreviated, as in this case, where Person having particular types of nose appears as Person having, reading back to the previous category, Types of nose.


Sometimes the array of categories will suggest metaphorical links. For example, if you look up words such as fuming, hot, and inflamed, you will find them both in their literal meanings and, with others of similar origin, in the category angry and its subcategories, since anger is often expressed metaphorically as heat. Other common metaphors can be explored in this way: how do those derived from cold compare with those from hot, for example?

Choosing the right word

One of the commonest uses of any Thesaurus is choosing the right word for a context. With the Historical Thesaurus, you have access to the right words for any period. If, for example, you are writing a play set in an eighteenth-century tavern, you can check for contemporary terms for inns, drinks, containers, furniture, and so on. The Thesaurus will tell you which words were in use before or during your period; a return to the OED will reveal whether they were available throughout your period, and whether there were any stylistic restrictions on their use. Another use of this kind is searching library catalogues for older books: if a book was written in the seventeenth century, its title will not contain words which first appeared in 1850. The Thesaurus can also be used if you have a word on the tip of your tongue but can’t quite remember it; a search for a synonym may well jog your memory.

Currency and style

Thesaurus wordlists show what words were available to talk or write about a particular concept at a particular time. Combining these with the OED‘s lists of citations and labels such as obs. (obsolete) or arch. (archaic), makes it possible to look through a category and find out which words were current when a particular author was writing, such as the different choices available to Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) to discuss beauty, or the possible late medieval options to name a teacher—among them loresman (1377), preceptor (c.1450), and usher (1533). Knowing the full range of words available, and the surprising limitations some authors were working under, gives an insight into the reasons why new words are coined, or the sometimes unusual word choices of some authors and periods.

Organized knowledge

In addition to its usefulness for browsing the words in the OED itself, looking through Thesaurus categories can act as a primer in the terminology and history of a subject. For example, the section printing machine or press gives a long list of terms for different types of that apparatus, from the first recorded uses at the dawn of printing in the late 1400s, to harnessing steam in the 1800s, to telegraphy and more modern printing and typewriting machines. Nearby, the newspaper section gives an insight into the history of newspapers, gazettes, periodicals, and magazines as dozens of new terms for, and sub-types of, these publications evolved from the eighteenth century onwards: for example, a little magazine, a scandal sheet, an air edition, or a love comic. For exact definitions, click through to the entry in the OED.

A note on Old English

Old English words in the Historical Thesaurus are listed under the OED spelling rather than in the original form, and with the OED dates or periods of use. Following OED policy, words which died out before 1150 are not included; for these, the user must consult the print version of the Thesaurus or the versions on the Glasgow University website.

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. In addition to this article, Christian Kay has written an Introduction to the Historical Thesaurus, while Marc Alexander and Kate Wild offer a case study on ‘Men’, ‘women’, and ‘children’ in the Thesaurus.
  2. As well as finding which words Jonathan Swift could have used, you can also discover the entries and senses for which Swift provides the earliest evidence, using Browse/Sources which lists the top 1000 authors and works. The OED includes more than 150 entries for which Swift’s work is the first example in the dictionary, among them: big-endian, hobble, and—of course— houyhnhnm, all from Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
  3. To find words which entered the language in a particular period, use Advanced search/Date of entry; searches may be combined with those by origin, usage, region, and subject, and results may also be displayed as a timeline. Alternatively use the ‘Word Wheel’ (ordered by date) on the right-hand side of an OED entry page.

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