OED Historical Thesaurus 15-min virtual tour

The questions which could not be addressed during the webinar sessions were considered by the panelists and the answers are available to view below.


Are chemical terms included from before modern systematic nomenclature? This would be very useful in understanding 17th and 18th century texts?

Yes; as a historical dictionary, the OED includes earlier terms for chemical substances and processes, typically marking that these are now obsolete, historical, or archaic. These terms will be grouped with the equivalent modern term(s) in the Historical Thesaurus. For example, the thesaurus category containing ‘mercury’ (the metallic element) also contains earlier terms like ‘quicksilver’, ‘argent-vive’, and ‘hydrargyrum’.

One of the really cool features of the OED (if it is accurate) is the feature that rates a word’s usage. A historical version of this would be immensely helpful. So, it may be of interest that someone uses a word with a sense that becomes common later, but to know that another synonym is the standard term and that the other word is, at that time, nigh a neologism or even a hapax legomenon would be wonderfully helpful.

We are currently exploring frequency over time, i.e. how the frequency of each words changes in corpora of English from different periods. This can be hard to do reliably before 1700, when the available corpora become smaller and spelling becomes more variable. From the point of the view of the Historical Thesaurus, we’d need historical frequency data not only for each word as a whole, but also for each sense of a each word, and this presents significant challenges for a dictionary like the OED, where sense divisions can be very subtle and fine-grained. But it’s something that we are experimenting with.

It would be good/useful to have tools to disambiguate between disciplines. E.g. ‘ontology’ has different but related meanings in computer science, philosophy, anthropology. Perhaps this is already there?

The Historical Thesaurus largely reflects the sense divisions given in the OED itself. In the case of the word ‘ontology’, the OED entry does not explicitly distinguish between uses of the word in, say, computing and anthropology, so the distinction is not reflected in the Historical Thesaurus either.