research maven

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

Lisa enthuses over her newest research tool:

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time.

It took forty-four years to bring the HTOED to publication, overcoming what the editors politely describe as “a series of intellectual, financial, and domestic challenges.” About 800,000 meanings from the OED were transcribed onto slips of paper and organized into a unique classification system with over 236,000 categories and subcategories. A fire in 1978 would have destroyed a decade of work but for the fact that the paper slips were stored in a metal filing cabinet. They could have finished making slips by 1980, but the decision was made to add new material from the second edition of the OED and the supplements. Computers were eventually used to enter, store, and retrieve data, but much of the work continued to be done by hand.

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system.

As Lisa notes, although the print version is awesome, an online version cross-referenced to the OED would be even more useful. Imagine being able to generate a custom English dictionary for any year or range of years, containing only the words and definitions current during the chosen time period…

My wife, the research maven

My wife, the researcher, editor, and rare-book expert Lisa Gold, has started her own blog:

My focus will be on the art and science of research and identifying useful sources of information. Along the way I’ll post on other subjects of interest, such as writing, editing, publishing, authors, and books of all kinds (new, old, and rare).

…or as I would put it if I were writing my own capsule description: “Come watch Lisa blog about all the cool stuff she knows.”

Since being mentioned on BoingBoing yesterday (thanks, Cory!), she’s been getting a ton of visitors. If you haven’t dropped by already, please do. The web address is, and you can subscribe to a feed here.