Put in a good word: using the Historical Thesaurus of the OED

Put in a good word: using the Historical Thesaurus of the OED

The Historical Thesaurus of the OED (HTOED) is a fascinating resource for exploring the ways that concepts have been expressed in different periods, and for discovering which synonyms were available for particular words at different times. Here we give examples of some of the ways you might use HTOED.

For instructions on how to search and browse HTOED, we’ve put together this helpful guide.

What did people used to call…. ?

You can use HTOED to find out what words were formerly used to express a particular concept, before the word we now normally use was coined, borrowed, or used in the given sense. For example:

  • The OED tells us that the word restaurant was first borrowed into English from French in 1806. But what did people call public eating houses in English before that? The HTOED category eating house or restaurant contains several earlier words, such as eating-house (c1440), cookshop (1542), and treating-house (1680). It also shows that restaurateur (1782)and restorator (1797) were both used slightly earlier in English than restaurant (and the OED etymologies show that both words were also borrowed from or modelled after French, from the same root meaning a place selling food which ‘restores’ health or strength). Such information can be useful if you are searching databases of historical texts. For example, if you’re interested in eating establishments in Early Modern England, restaurant would not be a very useful search term, but HTOED offers a set of alternatives.
  • The word dentist is first recorded in the OED in 1759. The HTOED category dentist shows that two earlier words were available: tooth-drawer (from 1393) and operator (from 1598, referring either to surgeons or – in expressions such as operator for the teethdentists). But most of the words in the dentistry category in HTOED date from the late 18th and 19th centuries onwards, reflecting when dentistry became an established profession in the English-speaking world.
  • The word urinal dates back to Middle English referring either to a phial used for inspecting urine, or to a chamber pot, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that it began to be used in its usual modern sense. What were urinals called before then? The HTOED category urinal offers a delightful selection of earlier alternatives including pissing place (1440), pissing post (1619), and leaking tub (1673). There is also pissery from 1693, after French pissoir; pissoir itself wasn’t borrowed into English until the early 20th century.

How was a particular concept expressed in a given period?

You can use HTOED to discover a list of words used for a concept or meaning in a given period, for example:

  • What words or phrases might Jane Austen have used to describe a character as agitated or tense? The OED tells us that she wouldn’t have used the terms worked up (1831), tense (1821 in this sense), keyed-up (1885, originally US), or wired (1970). The HTOED categories nervously excited or agitated and tense offer some alternatives used in Austen’s time, for example feverish, wrought, and high-wrought. Such information can shed light on why an author made particular lexical choices (out of the vocabulary available at the time), and it can also help prevent anachronisms in historical fiction (for example, if you are writing a novel set in early 19th-century Britain and want to use authentic language, don’t have a character saying that they are keyed-up – use an alternative like feverish instead).
  • What words did WWI soldiers use to refer to artillery shells? The HTOED categories within shell, including trench mortar shell and other types of shell, contain an abundance of terms first used during the First World War (often colloquialisms reflecting the noise, shape, etc., of the shells), including coal box (1914), crump (1914), whizz-bang (1915), plonker (1917), toffee apple (1917), and five-nine (a1918 – first recorded in a version of Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum est). 

Explore patterns within semantic fields

HTOED is also a rich resource for exploring patterns within semantic fields – what types of words have been used, and when, for particular concepts. This can shed light on social and attitudinal changes. For example:

  • Comparing the HTOED categories man and woman highlights some of the different ways that men and women have been regarded and talked about in English over the course of history, offering insights into historical sexism. See this blog post for further reading on the topic.
  • Some categories show an especially large number of coinages in a specific period. For example, about half of the words – and the earliest words – in the category inferior writer were coined in the Early Modern period, including scribbler (a1556), paper-blurrer (a1586), squitter-book (1594), penster (1611), and ink-dabbler (1616). This reflects the concern for the elegance, loftiness, or propriety of literary style at this time.

Enjoy browsing

You may also, like me, find HTOED simply quite fun to browse. One of my favourite categories is thing or person whose name is forgotten or unknown, which shows the expressions people have come up with over the years when they can’t think of a word: what-call-ye-him (1473), washical (1575), jiggumbob (a1625), thingum (1652), thingummy (1737), oojah (1917), oojamaflip (1970), and many more.  But hopefully with the wealth of data that OED and HTOED offer, you’ll not need to reach for any of these terms, but will have the word you want at your fingertips.

What’s your favourite HTOED category? Let us know in the comments below.

Further reading

For a fascinating discussion of a number of semantic fields in HTOED including death, drunkenness, money, and prostitution, see David Crystal (2014) Words in Time and Place: Exploring Language Through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English DictionaryOxford: Oxford University Press

Glasgow University’s Historical Thesaurus of English site also has an extensive bibliography of studies using Historical Thesaurus data, available here.


Watch the recording of our recent Historical Thesaurus Virtual Tour, where we look into its functionality, examples of use in research, and potential future developments.

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