And it only took them 40 years

The ‘Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary’ is finally being published

And it only took them 40 yearsChristian Kay’s work on the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary started out as inauspiciously as most careers do. “I just wanted a job, to be quite honest,” she says, “and this sounded interesting.” Little did she know she was embarking on a more-than-40-year journey that would have her combing the depths of the English language.

Kay, who’s now a professor of English at the University of Glasgow, joined the Historical Thesaurus project as a research assistant in 1969. Though she would eventually become one of the work’s chief editors, she was initially charged with the painstaking work of transcribing almost every single word in the Oxford English Dictionary—from Old English to its modern incarnation—onto little slips of paper. Each word was then grouped with others sharing similar meanings according to an elaborate classification system. But in a significant departure from the traditional thesaurus, Kay and her fellow researchers sought out every word ever used to express a specific concept and listed them chronologically. The synonyms range from the archaic to the modern to the downright bizarre.

Take the word “trousers.” Thanks to the prudery of 19th-century Victorian England, English is blessed with several odd euphemisms for pants, from “unimaginables” to “unwhisperables” and “never-mention-ems.” In a similarly austere vein, the 17th century saw the introduction of “lip-labour” and “lip-work” as synonyms for kissing.

The story behind the Historical Thesaurus itself is almost as compelling as the story it tells about the English language. The project started out as the brainchild of Michael Samuels, then a professor of English at the University of Glasgow, who announced its creation at a meeting of the Philological Society in 1964. Armed with a small staff of local scholars and visiting academics, Samuels got the project under way a year later.

From the outset—and throughout its 40-plus- year gestation—the Historical Thesaurus drifted from financial crisis to financial crisis, with Kay always on the lookout for new sources of funding. “I don’t think anybody would start doing something like this nowadays,” she says, “because you have to go on and on and on raising relatively small amounts of money just to keep the thing going.” Still, funding issues were relatively mundane compared to the other obstacles the Thesaurus’s creators faced.

By 1978, the team had collected thousands upon thousands of slips, tucking each of them away in banks of filing cabinets. When a fire ripped through the staff’s offices, it at first seemed that more than a decade’s worth of work had vanished along with everything else in the building. Luckily, the slips had been stored in metal cabinets. They survived the blaze, but the fire could very well have sounded the death knell for the ambitious project. “It would have been very difficult, I think, to justify starting all over again,” Kay says. From that point on, staffers were required to produce the slips in triplicate. One copy was sent off to London while another was kept at the University of Glasgow’s archives.

Two years after the fire, the editors were on the verge of declaring the project complete when Oxford University Press decided to publish a second edition of its authoritative dictionary, effectively adding new words to the English language. The Historical Thesaurus’s authors knew perhaps better than anyone that language is constantly evolving. However, expanding the work’s scope would add nearly 30 years to the project and leave its contributors sometimes feeling like they were chasing a mirage. “One problem with trying to describe a language is that you always come out with a static photograph of a moving object,” says Brock University’s Angus Somerville, who, along with Royal Roads University’s Thomas Chase, was one of two Canadians to work on the project. “The Thesaurus is, in a way, an attempt to show the movement.”

Kay and her team of contributors ended up filing their last slip of paper just a few months ago. The word it contained? Thesaurus. “It rounded things off,” Kay says. She still hasn’t seen a copy of the two-volume, 4,500-page colossus that consumed the last 40 years of her life. But when it’s finally released this November, Somerville expects the Historical Thesaurus, the only one of its kind for any language, to “revolutionize textual analysis.” That said, if Kay is any example, it won’t likely be as useful a tool for more prosaic pursuits. “I still can’t do crossword puzzles,” she says.