Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
Just when I was starting to fear that the sun had set for the reference book, all fourteen and a half pounds, three hundred and ninety-five dollars, three thousand eighty-four pages, and forty-four years in the making of Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, $395) thumped into my Netherlandish post office box. Billed as the "first historical thesaurus to be written for any of the world's languages" and designed as a tool for navigating the giant collection of information compiled by the Oxford English Dictionary since the middle of the nineteenth century, this behemoth requires the seasoned Roget's user -- as well as the less seasoned thesaurus.com user -- to spend some time with the instruction manual in order to decipher its mind-boggling taxonomy.
The first volume is the thesaurus itself. The second, the index, is the key to the first: one seeks the word and meets a terrifying number like 02.02.21.05.05.02, remitting the courageous to the first volume. It's a complicated procedure that seems ideally suited to digital searches, though the casual browser will also come across plenty of interesting phenomena, such as the number of synonyms (twenty-eight) Old English had for "destruction" ("nipcwealm," "tocwaescednes") and the surprisingly late appearance of the letter J (1620).
Noting that the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary took seventy years to complete and that it is still being edited another eighty years later, the press release expresses astonishment that the HTOED was completed in less than fifty. The vastness of the work means that its user, like the visitor to the Louvre or the Smithsonian, will never be able to do much more than skim the surface. Certain professions will find it useful for practical purposes: because one can now find precisely which words were being used in English at any time in the thirteen or so centuries that the language has been spoken and recorded, it gives the ornery reviewer of historical fiction a powerful new tool for pointing out anachronistic dialogue. It provides a helpful cross-check for the scriptwriters of a Shakespeare in Love, a Jane Austen country-house drama, or a story of the Jazz Age in Harlem. But the HTOED will primarily be used by the kind of people who, for no particular reason, love the history and music of language.
Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.
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