For want of a better word

The awesomely ambitious Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary has been released. It's expensive but a word lover's dream.

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What would Shakespeare have said instead of "pink"? What does the tormentor have in common with the "catch-em-alive-o"? Would John Webster have understood you if you called him a scabship, a cittern-head or a dish-wash? The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which appeared this year after four decades of gestation and revision, is a charming, enormous, intricate and proliferating thing that contains all these answers and thousands, if not millions, more.

At nearly 4,000 pages, with twice the number of words contained in Roget, the Oxford thesaurus has survived fire and the vagaries of academic funding to claim a place beside its parent, the Oxford English Dictionary, as an essential monument to the near-infinite richness and variety of the English tongue. It took 40 years, 230 people and more than £1 million (Dh6m) to complete: it's the biggest thesaurus in the world; and it is the only book in any language to attempt what it does.

There is some debate over who developed the first thesaurus, but a lost dictionary of synonyms produced in the first century AD by the grammarian, historian and translator Philo of Byblos is the most probable candidate. Another work, the Amarako, produced around the fourth century AD by the grammarian and poet Amara Sinha, collected Sanskrit words and roots in thematic areas - animals, towns, business, religion and so on - but presented them in metric verse to assist the process of memory. Centuries later, the taxonomic impulses of the European Enlightenment would give birth to a flurry of other collections. Abbé Girard published a French attempt in 1718, and Dr Johnson's confidante and sparring partner Hester Lynch Piozzi, brought out her British Synonymy in 1794, a decade after Johnson's death. Both, however, consisted of partial collections of apparent synonyms followed by essays listing their shades of difference in use, and neither was what we would recognise as a thesaurus today.

In 1852, however, a depressive British physician called Peter Mark Roget launched his retirement project upon the world. His Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition categorised words under six grand headings and endless minor classes of his own devising, from "Words Expressing Abstract Relations" to "Words Relating to the Voluntary Powers".

It was an instant success, going through 28 printings before the author's death 19 years later. With only minor adjustments over the years to its intricate system of classification, Roget's Thesaurus became the standard work, one of those sui generis books that is as interesting as a mind-map as it is invaluable as a reference tool. Though the word "thesaurus" is drawn from the Greek for a treasury or storehouse, and was used by early dictionary compilers as a title for their work, the sense in which we understand it today - that of lists of words arranged by meaning - is Roget's.

But the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary marks a giant leap forward from Roget's conception. As its editors explain in the introduction, the book - the first historical thesaurus of any language - is called a thesaurus because it shares with Roget the idea of wordlists arranged by theme or idea. Its real purpose is vastly more complex. The HTOED draws on the full Oxford English Dictionary, the peerless, 22,000-page record of the evolution of words and meanings in English, and orders each of its wordlists not only by concept, idea, nature or kind but by date.

Each entry offers a cross-section of the area of language in question, allowing the reader to see at a glance how English-speakers would have used the language at any point in history, for any given subject. Dates of first use and indications of lifespan mean that one can also get an idea of how recent or old-fashioned words were at particular dates, offering a complete picture of the linguistic backdrop of English that is as useful to scholars as it is to historical novelists and browsers.

For example: we know that Chaucer would not have known about the potato, which was only introduced to Europe in 1536. (Shakespeare mentions it twice: in his day it was thought to cause lechery.) But he would not have called a carrot a carrot, as the word only made the leap into English from the French carotte in 1533: to him, the wild carrots that existed in England might have been called tanks. Shakespeare would not have known the word pink, which postdates him: he would have used carnation to describe the colour.

Similarly, Jane Austen's characters would never have known elevenses, a word that only makes its way out of dialect in the late 19th century. Stay-stomach and noonshine, each describing a morning snack, are more her vintage, though she uses neither. (A Norseman would have had his snæding.) Wet weather, that staple of English conversation, has a predictably rich history in language. To a contemporary of Shakespeare and Marlowe, a wet morning would have been moisty, washy or rotten. In 1837, the year Oliver Twist was first published, it might have been juicy, or, the next year, sploshy. Slottery, givey and soft were not unknown.

And what use is a language as varied and as voracious as English if one can't swear, curse and berate one's fellow man? The entry for "a contemptible person" is a thing of pure joy, ranging as it does from wyrmlic and hinderling in Old English through dogbolt (1465-1690), marmoset (1500-1825) and skitbrains (1553) to whiffler (1659), prigster (1688) and zob (1911). One almost pities the next hapless cittern-head (1588) to offend the possessor of the Historical Thesaurus: he's certain to reap a whirlwind of invective worthy of Captain Haddock himself. Mustard-token! Finch-egg! Wormship! Reptile! Squirt!

The project to create a thesaurus from the OED was first mooted in 1965 by Michael Samuels, then the Professor of English Language at Glasgow University. According to the linguist David Crystal, his announcement came amid "a mood of jovial disbelief that it could ever be done - at least, not within the lifetime of the people who were present". Years were spent classifying data, and volunteers from Scotland, Germany and Canada were recruited. In 1978 a building fire threatened to destroy the growing archive of entries, but the paper slips were saved. Only in 1981, when electronic storage for the project became viable, did a team of trainees set to work getting the entries onto a database: and in 1989, Professor Christian Kay, who had begun the project as a research assistant, took over as director.

The thesaurus is a sweetshop for linguists and lexicographers, but for anyone with the slightest interest in the rich, juicy and periodically mad history of the English language, it may also become one of the most transportingly distracting books in the world. Electronic and online versions of the work will no doubt appear in good time, to accompany the svelte and searchable CD version of the full OED that entered its fourth incarnation last year: but for all that it may gain in popularity and accessibility, a work as huge and engrossing as this can only suffer when translated to the pragmatic domain of headword searches and Boolean strings. These two handsome, thick blue volumes seem made for browsing, and even the most dedicated seeker of specific knowledge will find that if he enters by one door he'll leave by another three streets over and several centuries back.

Writers, too, will find the book an invaluable accessory: not only does it provide a seam of period detail and recherché colloquialism that has practically no equal, but it also offers an instant means to check any accidental anachronisms of one's own. Previously, the writer of Elizabethan historical fiction would have had to sift through the quotations in OED to check that the expletive, or the heraldic term, or the pink dress, was in date. With the thesaurus, no need.

As Philip Pullman has pointed out, "Here is the information we had to spend hours hunting down through the thickets and coverts of the great OED, shot, stuffed and mounted for us." The Historical Thesaurus is priced for the academic market, but, like its parent the Dictionary, it's a dictionary-lover's dream, a book of near-endless pleasures and distractions, and a textual resource that has no equal. It makes a natural companion to the OED, joining the dots of its formidable scholarship and throwing light on it from the most unexpected of angles, and it's certain to be responsible for tears of joy this holiday season in the homes of delighted word-geeks worldwide.

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is published by the Oxford University Press, £250(Dh1,500).