The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford
edited by Christian Kay,
Jane Roberts, Michael Samuels, and Irené Wotherspoon Crane
Oxford, two vols., 3,952 pp., $395
Virginia Woolf once said that the word for writing should not be composition, which hardly gives an accurate idea of the stitching and unstitching that writing requires, but revision. Like Cardinal Newman and Winston Churchill, Woolf wrote standing up, so the onerousness of writing was something of which she was particularly conscious. But whether standing or sitting, all writers must not only choose but find their words, and that can be madly frustrating.
Enter Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), the polymath behind the eponymous Thesaurus who, for generations, has come to the rescue of word-hunting writers. Born in Soho, London, Roget was the son of the Huguenot pastor of the French Protestant church on Little Deab Street. His mother was the sister of Samuel Romilly, the parliamentarian and law reformer, from whom he inherited his peculiarly methodical intelligence. After obtaining a medical degree at Edinburgh, Roget went on to distinguish himself in a number of different métiers before devoting himself to his Thesaurus.
He practiced medicine in Manchester, lectured on animal physiology in Bloomsbury, collaborated with Jeremy Bentham on a scheme to invent a food-preserving “frigidarium” decades before the refrigerator was invented, advised the Millbank penitentiary during an epidemic of dysentery, advised Her Majesty’s Government on London’s water supply, became private secretary to Viscount Howick (later the Whig prime minister Earl Grey), worked out chess problems that had baffled players for centuries, invented the logo-logarithmic slide rule (which would later solve many hitherto unsolved problems in electrical engineering), and was the author of over 100 publications—including one that demonstrated that if a revolving carriage wheel was viewed through a vertical Venetian blind the boards would not obstruct the appearance of continuous movement, a finding which would have huge implications for the motion picture and the stroboscope.
Beginning in 1805 and throughout his endlessly inventive life, Roget made entries in notebooks, which were like lexical storehouses designed to bring the wild variety of English under a classifiable rule, though it was not until he was 61 that he managed to work on the project full-time. As a result of his far-ranging reading, Roget was aware that others had attempted to classify words. The Sanskrit grammarian and poet Asmarha Sinha had compiled a classification of Sanskrit words called the Amata-Kosha in the fourth century. And in the late 18th century another classification of words was published in Paris under the title Pasgragraphie. But no one had ever attempted such a thing in English. Roget set out to classify English words in such a way as to assist not only philologists but ordinary readers, writers, and researchers. He completed his mammoth task when he was 73 and it was published by Longman in 1852. By the time of his death, Roget’s Thesaurus had gone through 28 printings, wearing out the original plates.
In 1952 Everyman’s Library brought out a revision of the world-famous Thesaurus to mark its hundredth anniversary, in which the editor wrote:
In the course of its century of use Roget’s Thesaurus has come to be as widely accepted and as indispensable to writers as a dictionary, and its system and arrangement have become so familiar that any radical alteration of them would lessen the value of the book to those who know their way about it from constant use. For that reason no attempt has been made to modify the main scheme which Roget originally laid down.
Nearly 60 years later Roget is still in print, and crossword-puzzle aficionados, writers, poets, students, journalists, and word-desperate reviewers are as reliant on its helpful classifications as ever. Now Oxford University Press has published a two-volume historical thesaurus, based on the Oxford English Dictionary, which completely renovates Roget’s scheme.
Based on 40 years of research conducted by a team of 230 scholars at the University of Glasgow, this Historical Thesaurus offers not only more classifications but more precise classifications, comprising 236,400 categories and subcategories.
This is where the new thesaurus differs from (and improves on) Roget. As the Manx-born linguist Randolph Quirk notes in his foreword, the “veritable universal taxonomy” that the Glasgow team of scholars devised for this new work is “subtler and more detailed” than the scheme devised by Roget. In compi-
ling the book, the editors drew on prototype theory and cognitive semantics. The system of the Historical Thesaurus of the OED, writes Quirk, “has evolved in a recursive interplay between a priori postulation (and initial use of Roget’s categories)” and “the input richness of the OED material.”
Quirk brings his considerable expertise to bear to endorse the genuine marvels of the new thesaurus, which is not intended so much to supplant as to complement the earlier work. For the sake of convenience, most writers will still continue to use some form of a desktop Roget. But for writers and researchers looking for words for more exacting or scholarly purposes—or for word browsers of all kinds—the new thesaurus will be indispensable. And at $395 the two volumes are not cheap but they are a good investment.
The new scheme breaks down thus. There are three main categories: the world, the mind, and society. These are then broken down still further. Under the world, the book classifies the earth, life, physical sensibility, matter, existence in time and space, relative properties, and the supernatural. Under the mind are listed mental capacity, emotion, philosophy, aesthetics, will/faculty of will, refusal/denial, having/possession, and language. And finally, under society are listed society/the community, inhabiting/dwelling, armed hostility, authority, morality, education, faith, communication, travel/traveling, occupation/work, and leisure. This is the “veritable universal taxonomy” of which Quirk writes.
Since the new book is based, like the OED, on historical principles, it gives the reader a sense not only of the range of the OED, for which it serves as a kind of map, but a detailed understanding of the historical evolution of finely classified strands of synonyms.
For example, the word “terrorism” entered the language in 1798 following the Reign of the French Terror, though the word “terror” entered as early as 1528, with the word “Turk,” to connote terribleness, entering shortly thereafter in 1598. All of these words can be found under the heading “quality of terribleness.” But one can also find “terrorism” and “terrorist” under the heading “oppression,” where one will also find “tamerlane/tamberlaine” (1579-1632) and “sultanism” (1821). When two dates are given for a particular entry, instead of a single date, this denotes the first and last recorded OED citations for that sense.
Under “types of war” (there is no subcategory for “man-made disaster”) there are entries for “holy war” (1603), “crescentade” (1868), and “jihad” (1880). Under the heading “contending in battle,” there is a lively array of words, including “battling” (1300), “fighting” (1340), “joining the battle” (1548), and “buckling” (1563). Then again, more narrowly, there is “push of pike” (1596-1852) under “fighting at close quarters” and under “guerrilla fighting” there are two entries, “bushwacking,” an American term (1864), and “bush-fighting” (1760-1837).
Then, under “contentment/satisfaction,” we have the word “appeaser” entering the language in 1869. Continuing along the trail, there are additional synonyms, under the general heading “bringing about concord,” “peace,” and the more specific subheading “appeasing/pacifying/propitiating,” including “gladung” (Old English), “mitigation” (1382), “queming” (1440), and “placation” (1589). Under the general heading “pacification” there is “peace-
monger” (1808), which the European editors gratuitously signify (“derog.”), though under “international politics/relations” they do manage to call a spade a spade by listing “appeasement” (1919) under “appeasement,” together with “Munich” (1938), “Munichism” (1941), and “Municheer” (1942).
“Truckle” (1680) is another good illustrative word. Under the general rubric “be servile,” the book lists, among many others, “fawn” (1440), “creep” (1596), “spaniel” (1599), “grovel” (1605), “kiss (another’s) arse/behind/bum” (1705), “crouch the knee” (1815-1854), “kow-tow” (1826), and “toady” (1861). “Spaniel,” as the literary critic Caroline Spurgeon showed, was a word that obsessed Shakespeare.
“Incompetence” (1876) offers good examples of how the new thesaurus finely divides categories. Under the general heading “disorders of internal organs,” and the more specific subheading “disordered functioning,” the book lists “incompetence” with “ataxy” (1670), “over-action” (1741), “excitement” (1788-1801), “perversion” (1842), “stammering” (1855), and “hypermotility” (1894). Then under “inability” we have “incompetency” (1611) together with “infirmity” (1382-1796), “un-ability” (1400-1769), “non-ability” (1477-1697), “invalidity” (1598-1698), “un-capableness” (1611-1727), “incapacity” (1611), “incompatibility” (1659) and “unfitness” (1885).
Under the general heading of “insufficiency,” the book sheds light on yet more finely calibrated shades of meaning. Under the subheading “insufficiency for the needs of the case,” the book lists “unsatisfactoriness” (1643), “inadequateness” (1681), and “inadequacy” (1787). Under the subheading “deficiency/lack/shortage,” the book includes “wane” (Old English), “default” (1300-1825), “wanting” (1300), “absence” (1398), “lack” (1398), “want” (1400), “defect” (1589), “vacuity” (1601-1822), and “deficiency” (1634).
The new Historical Thesaurus is a return to form for the research division of Oxford University Press which, in the recent past, has not always maintained its accustomed high standards. Jesse Sheidlower, for example, editor at large of the newest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (2007), did that (heretofore) superb reference work no favors by relaxing its historical principles. One of the reasons the Historical Thesaurus of the OED is so welcome is that it restores those principles to their rightful prominence, which will enable readers to trace the living language in all its historical glory.
Roget would have approved.
Edward Short is a writer in New York.