Friday, October 23, 2009

A new Thesaurus

It was in 1969 that Professor Kay, now 69, arrived at the University of Glasgow to work as a research assistant on a project that had been started four years earlier by the Professor of English Language, Michael Samuels.

The result, which took its team of 230 editors, research assistants, postgraduate students, staff and volunteers the equivalent of 176 man-years to complete, is a two-volume, 3,952-page thesaurus, with 800,000 meanings and 236,000 categories and sub-categories — and a surprisingly large number of words for nose. (Nose: nib, proboscis, snot-gall, smeller, trunk, conk, sneezer, scent-box, snoot, horn, spectacles-seat, razzo, beezer, schnozzle ... ) It is not just noses, either. “It is amazing to see how many words there were in Anglo-Saxon times for diseases of the feet,” said Professor Kay, who took over the running of the project in 1989. “I assume in those days conditions of the hands and feet were very important and also, medical knowledge in those times only consisted of the outer body.”

Does anyone suffer from deawwyrm these days? Or fotgeswell? Perhaps it’s an Anglo-Saxon thing.

The area that shows human ingenuity at its most productive, however, is the insult. Ever since Homo sapiens moved beyond the basic grunt, people have been rude about each other and the thesaurus includes a rich compendium of the different ways that man has found to express his contempt for his fellow man.

In Anglo-Saxon times a person might be called an earming, wyrmlic or hinderling. By Shakespeare’s time that had broadened to include dogbolt, drivel, marmoset, skitbrains and shack-rag. Later insults included fitchcock, muckworm, whiffler, ramscallion, squinny and snool, not to mention such 20th-century additions as tripe-hound, shite-poke, roach and lug.

The historical thesaurus, the first of its kind, also highlights when words became common parlance. Shakespeare, for instance, would not have used the word “pink” to describe the colour because the word entered the language only in 1828. Instead he would have used “carnation”.

Chaucer would not have called that familiar root vegetable a “carrot”, because the word comes from the French carotte and is not recorded until 1533. He would have said “tank”.

“Our oldest words go back to about 700AD,” said Professor Kay. “This is when the English language came to Britain. It was not the origin of the language, though; it was already in existence in Germanic parts of Europe. The Angles and Saxons had been speaking it for centuries and brought it with them when they came here.”

She said that one of the main differences from Roget’s Thesaurus was that the new volumes go back to the origins of English. “In addition to getting the words arranged by their meanings, we provide the dates during which they were current in English.

“We include obsolete words which are no longer in use or are only found in very special contexts.

“Words have different survival rates so there are maybe 7,000 words which have been in English since the very early days and there are other words that maybe only lasted for a few years. For the first time ever the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary puts these in context.”

How did Professor Kay feel when she finally completed the work of a lifetime? Elated? Exultant? Jubilant? Cock-a-hoop? “I just felt triumphant,” she said. “I sometimes doubted that we would ever finish it. You are going round in circles the whole time. If you move this word or that word you might improve it. You could do it for ever. But you’ve got to pull the plug at some point.” In other words, it could have taken longer than 44 years.

Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is published by Oxford University Press, £250 until January 31, 2010, then £275

1 comment:

John A said...

Immediately brought to mind the movie Ball of Fire in which a language researcher realises his compendium of slang is already obsolete when less than half-finished.