Links to HTOED

The Historical Thesaurus of the OED (HTOED), published in 2009, represents the fruit of a major lexicographical project directly related to OED. The work of a team of Glasgow linguists headed by M. H. Samuels and Christian Kay, the project began in the 1960s and took nearly 50 years to complete. The idea behind it was to ‘turn the dictionary inside out’: to re-organize the thousands of entries in the OED by meaning rather than by alphabetical order, hence enabling a completely different type of access to its content.

Alphabetical order has nothing (or little) to do with meaning. Classifying and arranging the OED’s entries according to their semantic content instead creates what the HTOED editors call ‘conceptual maps’, which can then be further analysed to tell us both about language and about the referents of language. It is self-evident that the potential uses for these ‘maps’ are far-reaching, and that the creation of HTOED is of great lexical and cultural significance.

HTOED re-organizes OED’s vocabulary under three main headings: the external world, the mind, and society, with every word and sense allotted its slot in a nested series of sub-categories which extend many layers downwards. In this way, the thesaurusallows us to see, grouped together, words relating to a comprehensive range of cultural phenomena, with dates of first usage and evidence of currency over specific periods. See further the reviews in Brewer 2010c and Mugglestone 2010.

The printed form of the HTOED (2009) is unwieldy and prohibitively difficult to use: one has to turn back and forth between two heavy volumes, scanning closely printed lists of many-digit numbers, in order to identify what one is looking for – i.e. the collection of words and phrases semantically close to the word under investigation. Electronic linking between the OED and the HTOED is therefore a great improvement: a few clicks can now achieve what previously required tedious and time-consuming labour.

HTOED and OED Online

On OED Online one can access HTOED either direct or via individual dictionary entries, most of which now contain one or more links to the corresponding entry in the thesaurus. Clicking on a link marked ‘Thesaurus’ within an entry causes a small box to spring into view, with a list of related terms (themselves clickable) ordered by date of first use. The OED entry of the verb rub, for example (revised March 2011), contains 11 separate main senses, several additional senses, and many different phrasal senses, most of which are given individual links to HTOED. The link for sense 1, ‘To apply pressure and friction to’, gives access to the following list of verbs, under a heading which locates the sense within HTOED’s taxonomic structure:

Heading: the world » existence and causation » creation » destruction » rubbing or friction » rub

Related words:

  •    gnide   (c1000)
  •    frot   (?c1225)
  •    gnodde   (c1230)
  •    rud   (c1300)
  •    rub   (a1325)
  •    wipe   (1362)
  •    fret   (a1400)
  •    labour   (?a1475)
  •    wrive   (1481)
  •    scrud   (1483)
  •    chafe   (1526)
  •    frig   (a1529)
  •    fricace   (1579)
  •    perfricate   (1598)

In turn, one can look up these other words to investigate their respective definitions, periods of use, and quotation examples. Clearly, such information has many different possible uses and applications; in particular, it is tempting to make inferences on the currency of words or senses at different periods (e.g. the number of available synonyms at any one time), and on the specific connotations or typical register of a word as indicated by the quotations cited in the entry.


HTOED as originally compiled was based almost entirely on OED2, and in consequence reproduces many of the biases and imperfections of that edition. Most obviously, dates of first usage are insecure for unrevised OED entries. Thus of the 14 words in the above list, only labour and perfricate have been revised (as of September 2018), while the 12 other entries have been largely or completely untouched since publication in the first edition over 1884-1928. The evidence they contain is significantly out-of-date. MED evidence antedates wipe by over 100 years (from 1362 to a1225), for example, and clearly all the other entries should also be updated .

There are other problems too. Because over half of the OED is as yet unrevised from the first edition of 1884-1928, it is not surprising that the HTOED link delivers uneven and incomplete results on many categories of vocabulary. This can be seen by looking at terms where OED1 (and hence OED2) coverage was notably deficient, and where OED3 has been making substantial changes; see our short study of terms for lesbian. Regrettably, OED Online does not alert users to any of these issues.

The Historical Thesaurus of English itself is continuing as an independent project, under the directorship of Marc Alexander. Work on a second edition is underway at Glasgow, encompassing many interesting new features such as visualizations. Information can be found at the Historical Thesaurus website at [accessed 27 August 2019].

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