The OED, the HT, and the HTOED – Part I: The Origin Story

The OED, the HT, and the HTOED – Part I: The Origin Story

The Historical Thesaurus is the product of over fifty years of sorting and categorising; based primarily on data from the OED, it was originally produced through extensive work at the University of Glasgow. On completion, it was published in a print edition by OUP and later integrated into the OED website as well as being available to researchers through the webpages of the University of Glasgow. Today it is maintained through a close working relationship between the OED and the Glasgow teams, who collaboratively integrate new material into their respective versions of the Thesaurus. This is the first in an occasional series of posts exploring the relationship between OED and Historical Thesaurus projects; let’s begin by looking at how the Thesaurus was created and its underpinnings in OED data.

Every story about the Historical Thesaurus of English begins with the figure of Professor Michael Samuels. Coming to the University of Glasgow in the 1950s, Samuels was influential in the field of historical linguistics and particularly what is now known as historical sociolinguistics, which examines the ways in which varieties of language develop and interact throughout history. The tale of the Historical Thesaurus’ inception has almost taken on an urban legend status amongst those who have worked on the project; in 1965 Professor Samuels delivered a speech to the Philological Society (a written version was published in the Society’s Transactions for that year; Samuels 1965) which ended with his announcement that his department were working on a historical thesaurus which “would tell us how many and which words were available to each writer in past periods, for the expression of a given notion […] and […] would provide the basic material necessary for detecting and solving all problems of ‘semantic fields’ in English, notably the connections, in each field, between semantic shift, verbal obsolescence and innovation” (Samuels 1965: 39). As the story is often told, not every member of staff at Glasgow was already fully aware of their commitment to this project, but that was soon to change; indeed, Professor David Crystal recounted some of the incredulous reaction from the academic community in the first ‘Samuels Lecture’ delivered in 2012!

Work involved literally chunking up the Oxford English Dictionary, sometimes ripping volumes into sections which could be distributed amongst staff and students. Initially, each person engaged on the Historical Thesaurus project was to work their way through pages of the dictionary, transferring word senses one-by-one onto individual index cards. Crucially, each sense of a headword was treated individually, copied onto a separate card so that these could later be sorted into an appropriate meaning category, no matter how many different possible meanings a word form might have (the word set notoriously has more than 400 senses, although most, thankfully, have far fewer!). Each index card was also marked up with the dates of citations given by the dictionary, along with the definition text of the sense, and labels which gave extra information such as attribution to a particular dialect.

Copying out these words was, in its own right, a mammoth task which took decades, was funded through numerous awards, and benefitted from the efforts of more people than can be listed here, although acknowledgements can be found on Glasgow’s Thesaurus webpages. The data was enhanced by new information from the supplement and Additions volumes produced by the OED in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Other dictionaries and sources were consulted as well to fill out certain parts of the data, particularly for Old English lexis, some of which does not fall within the scope of the OED. The next stage was to arrange this data into semantic categories so that words with similar meanings were placed together, and linked into a hierarchy based on the relationship of ideas to one another – usually each category contained an idea which could be considered ‘part of’ the category immediately above it in this structure. A set of high level categories was devised by the editorial team including Professor Samuels and future director of the project, Professor Christian Kay; below these, categories were developed through iterative attempts to group word senses based in part on the definition text copied from the dictionary, and in part on the academic judgement of the project staff. This took further years of work, sometimes documented in student research theses and the publications of staff at Glasgow and associated institutions (a rich listing of associated work can be found here). Most notably, a ‘pilot’ for the finished Thesaurus was produced in the form of A Thesaurus of Old English; this demonstrated the concept of an historical thesaurus in miniature for the earliest period of the English language, and is still available and in use today.

Finally, in 2009, the Thesaurus was published. The editorial team, at this point led by Professor Kay as the second of the Thesaurus’ directors, had long been in discussion with Oxford University Press; it made sense that the Thesaurus was firmly linked to the OED data on which it largely drew and so an agreement with OUP had been reached in the 1980s to publish the project’s results. The print edition was, therefore, issued as the two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, and there was much rejoicing, speech-making, and imbibing of wine. A living language such as English, however, never stands still, and the OED team were then working on the dictionary’s third edition with the expectation that it would be a primarily (if not wholly) online resource. Work began to adapt the Historical Thesaurus for digital presentation as well, and both the University of Glasgow and the OED began creating web-based interfaces for the data. This, however, is a story for another time – in the next of these blog entries, I’ll look a little at the ways in which the Historical Thesaurus has been revised and updated so that it remains a valuable resource for users.


Samuels, M.L. (1965) ‘The Role of Functional Selection in the History of English’ in Transactions of the Philological Society 64(1): 15-40

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