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Roget for Moderns

The words of English get the Oxford treatment.

Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By EDWARD SHORT
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“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.



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