Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary: With Additional Material from a Thesaurus of Old English

Christian Kay; Jane Roberts; Michael Samuels; Irene Wotherspoon
Pub date
Oct 2009
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  • The largest thesaurus in the world and the first historical thesaurus for any of the world's languages
  • A complete sense inventory for English from Old English to the present day, based on the Oxford English Dictionary
  • Thematic system of classification provides a unique view into the development of words with similar meaning over time
  • Chronological ordering of synonyms, showing dates of first recorded use in English, with earliest synonyms first
  • 800,000 words and meanings and 235,000 entry categories (Volume 1) plus comprehensive Index (Volume 2) for cross reference and alphabetical lookup

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED) is a unique new resource charting the semantic development of the huge and varied vocabulary of English. It is the first comprehensive historical thesaurus ever produced for any language, containing almost every word in English from Old English to the present day, and is a magnificent resource for the historical study of the language. It is based on a detailed analysis of English as found in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and also draws on A Thesaurus of Old English. Conceived and compiled by the English Language Department of the University of Glasgow over a period of some 45 years, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is a groundbreaking analysis of meaning in the history of English.

Content and Structure

The thesaurus organization follows a unique thematic system of classification, with entries arranged in a comprehensive semantic hierarchy according to their meanings. Each individual synonym is presented in chronological order according to the first recorded date of the word's use in English as listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, with earliest synonyms given first.

There are three major sections in the HTOED, reflecting the main activities and preoccupations of users of the language: 

The external world
II The mental world
III The social world

These in turn are divided into 354 major categories, such as Food and drink, Thought, or War. Further categories and subcategories follow, moving from the most general ideas to the most specific. Overall, the HTOED contains around 800,000 meanings, organized into more than 236,000 categories and subcategories.

The semantic categories and subcategories are headed by phrases which define them and link to preceding sections. In the abridged example given here, the headings and numbering show that Terms of endearment, at the fourth level of the semantic hierarchy, are part of Love, which is classified within the higher category of Emotion, which in turn comes under The mind. 

02 The mind
02.02 Emotion
02.02.22 Love
.... Terms of endearment

The HTOED contains obsolete, historical, and archaic vocabulary, as well as the vocabulary of current English; it covers scientific, technical, and specialist terminology as well as slang, dialect, and informal language, and regional varieties of English from all parts of the world. Each term is precisely entered into its place in this comprehensive hierarchy of meaning, according to its meaning and date, and is accessible either by browsing at any level of the hierarchy, or by looking up a particular word in its alphabetical place via the Index. The Index itself lists nearly one million references and ensures a comprehensive lookup and accessibility of the full text.

The final printed work is presented in two volumes: Volume 1 is the Thesaurus, while Volume 2 is the alphabetical Index listing the synonyms in Volume 1. Readers may thus approach the content of the Thesaurus in different ways: either by looking up a single lexical item in the Index and being directed to the appropriate section in the main Thesaurus, or by browsing by semantic category directly, and seeing words in their context of both historical development and the overall organization of meaning. There is an Introductory essay by the Editors and a Foreword written by Lord Randolph Quirk, together with a specially commissioned fold-out chart showing the principal levels of the semantic classification.


The HTOED is a unique resource for scholars of all types - linguists and language specialists, historians, literary commentators, etc. - as well as being a fascinating resource for everyone with an interest in the English language and its historical development. It is the ideal complement to the OED itself, allowing the OED to be accessed and its contents viewed in wholly new ways.

Brief History of the Project

Like any large and ambitious project, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED) has a long and varied history.

In 1965 Michael Samuels, then Professor of English Language at the University of Glasgow, gave a lecture to the Philological Society in which he announced that his department was embarking on a project to create a historical thesaurus of English. The proposal was based on a thorough analysis of the sense inventory of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and the intention was that the work would be carried out by staff and students at Glasgow University. 

Work started soon after and over the following years the project grew in momentum and continued under the dedicated leadership of the University's project team, passing in time to Professor Christian Kay to guide it through the later and final stages. From the late 1970s onwards, as data collection proceeded, the team focused increasingly on the immense task of devising a new system of classification which would do justice to such a huge amount of material. Such a system had to be flexible enough to accommodate changes in the vocabulary over the years and the cultural changes they reflected, which led to similarities but also important differences when compared to other less comprehensive and less detailed thesaurus classifications.

Compiling the HTOED was a huge undertaking, and a huge challenge, with material continually being revised and reclassified as the project progressed. But finally in July 2008, after more than 40 years' work, and many, many person-hours of dedication and hard work, the last entry was slotted into place, and the work of producing the print publication could begin.

Additional References

The Historical Thesaurus includes almost every word in English from Old English to the present day, drawing on the Oxford English Dictionary, and supplemented by the following specialist dictionaries of Old English: 

Jane Roberts and Christian Kay with Lynne Grundy, A Thesaurus of Old English, King's College London Medieval Studies XI, 1995, 2 vols., xxxv + 1555. Second edition, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. Online version 2005

Bosworth, Joseph, 1868. A Compendious Anglo-Saxon and English Dictionary. London: J. R. Smith. 

Bosworth, Joseph & T. Northcote Toller, eds. 1898. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press; T. Northcote Toller, ed. 1921. An Anglo- Saxon Dictionary: Supplement. London: Oxford University Press; Alistair Campbell, ed. 1972. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Enlarged Addenda and Corrigenda. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 

Clark Hall, John R. 1960. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 4th edn with a supplement by Herbert D. Meritt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Dictionary of Old English. Antonette DiPaolo Healey & Richard L. Venezky, ed. A Microfiche Concordance to Old English. Toronto, 1980; Richard L. Venezky & Sharon Butler, ed. A Microfiche Concordance to Old English: The High Frequency Words. Toronto, 1985. The five letters then edited by the Dictionary of Old English team were also consulted: Fasc. D, 1986; Fasc C, 1988; Fasc. B, 1991; Fasc. Æ, 1992; Fasc. Beon, 1992; Fasc. A, 1994.


Volume I (Thesaurus)
Unlocking the OED: the story of the Historical Thesaurus of the OED
Guide to the use of the thesaurus
Thesaurus structure - main sections
Abbreviations used in the thesaurus
Selected bibliography
I The external world
II The mental world
III The social world
Volume II (Index)
Guide to the use of the index

About the author: 

Christian Kay, MA, AM, DipGenLing, University of Glasgow
Jane Roberts, MA, DPhil, DLitt, University of London
Michael Samuels, MA, DLitt, FRSE, formerly University of Glasgow
Irene Wotherspoon, MA, MLitt, formerly University of Glasgow

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