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Points of Reference

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This is the archive of the blog Points of Reference. From 2009-2012 a team of library reference experts talked about resources (books, databases, Web sites, e-books, and more) and publishing trends.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2010 10:54 am
And Now, the World's Greatest Thesaurus
Posted by: Admin

The history of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary has been burnished into legend over the years, at least among librarians and linguists, many of whom are familiar with the story of the famous pigeon holes stuffed with quotations slips from contributors around the world. The OED has been called the word's greatest dictionary, and it has been joined by what might be called the world's greatest thesaurus, Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Thesaurus is based on the OED and its various editions, additions, and supplements, as well as A Thesaurus of Old English (1995). The history of Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, though not quite as long as that of the OED, is almost as fraught. According to the chronology helpfully provided by the publisher, the project was first announced in 1965 by Michael Samuels, Professor of English Language at the University of Glasgow, at a lecture to the Philological Society. In those pre-computer days, recording of data followed the same paper-slip model created by the makers of the OED. Then came many years of work and delays and threats, including  a fire in the 1970s that might have destroyed the entire archive of paper slips, except that they were kept in metal filing drawers. After that all the materials were microfilmed, and during the 1980s the process of transforming the slips into a database began. Finally, more than 40 years after it was announced (speedier than than the 70 years it took to complete the OED) the Thesaurus has become a hefty two-volume 4,000-page reality.

If you're looking for a quick and easy way to find a synonym, don't look here. Rather than another Roget's, this is meant to be a scholarly analysis of how English meanings have changed over time. Nearly a million words and expressions are organized according to a complicated hierarchy of around 236,400 semantic categories, subcategories, and sub-sub- categories. Arrangement at the individual meaning level is chronological, making it possible to see how various expressions have evolved over time. The entire second volume is given over to the index. For those who find the classification system daunting, Oxford has provided a detailed user's guide, not to mention a fold-out color chart.  Here's a look at what the Thesaurus contains:

In its review, The Guardian notes that the Thesaurus might turn out to be "one of the last great printed reference works." An online version will be available later this year when the redesign of Oxford English Dictionary Online is launched.


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