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War of the Thesauri

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon wonders if thesauruses fight.

Although I find the expression “if it’s not on the internet it doesn’t exist” as fatuous and irritating as the next person, I must admit that I was somewhat surprised when I discovered that none of the search engines I looked at had any hits for the phrase ‘war of the thesauruses’ (or for ‘war of the thesauri’). After all, there have been two separate instances in lexicographic history which have merited the title ‘war of the dictionaries’; are thesauri truly so inoffensive as to have not even occasioned a skirmish or two over the past two hundred years?

Admittedly, there was a brief thesaurus imbroglio, involving Merriam-Webster (and AOL), about ten years ago, when they included some entries which may be characterized as ‘not terribly well thought out’ as synonyms for the word homosexual. After some complaints arose the entry was changed, and the online Merriam-Webster thesaurus that I checked this morning rather scrupulously avoids offending anyone. They do not even have an entry for the word french, for which a number of older thesauri offer the ‘synonym’ parleyvoo (Merriam-Webster suggests a list of 17 similar words that I may have meant to type instead of french, beginning, oddly enough, with brains, branch, brawns, and brewing).

I’m certain that there have been violent disagreements over thesauri over the years, but to the best of my knowledge there have not been the sort of public intellectual contretemps similar to the kind that have been brought forth by many dictionaries. I don’t know if this is simply because the subject matter doesn’t support arguments or if it is because thesauri have traditionally not been viewed as authoritative and comprehensive enough to invite attack. I doubt that it is the former, given that there is always someone willing to start an argument where language is concerned.

Oxford University Press
is soon publishing the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, a massive work that is based on more than forty years of research done at the University of Glasgow, and continued at OUP. The fact that anyone would deliberately attempt a project of this magnitude, a historical thesaurus based on the OED, is testament to the fact that Pope’s sentiment of ‘hope springs eternal in the human breast’ remains true. And the fact that the project, begun in the 1960s, has been completed so quickly is miraculous.

I received a photocopy of one page of the thesaurus, and lost an entire weekend of my life to looking through it. It is an astonishing amount of work, crammed into type and set on paper, and a glorious reflection of human language and thought. I’m certainly not hoping that this work occasions disagreement when it is released, but in the event that it does, it will nonetheless be a relief to finally have a thesaurus that is worth fighting over.

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  1. […] them have close to 80 years experience working on that magnificent project). I’ve mentioned the HTOED before, and feel no compunction to avoid repeating myself. If you have any curiosity about the […]

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