I received the 4,000-page, two-volume, clothbound, slipcased Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford; $395) in a package almost big enough to climb into. Its publication on October 22 was the consummation of forty-five years of work by four core editors and a revolving team of volunteers and grad students, collecting about 800,000 meanings divided into 236,400 subcategories, subsumed under three main headings: "The External World," "The Mental World" and "The Social World." It is the first historical thesaurus in any language. On opening Volume 1, The Thesaurus (Volume 2 is The Index), I had to take a few minutes to orient myself to a taxonomy specified by call number; it was as though an entire library had been mapped onto the pages of a codex, and I, a character in a Borges story, had inadvertently tumbled in.
In a real library, call numbers refer to whole other books on steel shelves. Even in a proper dictionary, word definitions and usages point outside the page to what we call the real world. But in the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED), meanings point toward each other, in a thickening web of association that accrues vertically through time and horizontally across gradations of sense. For instance, the synonyms for "destroy" (01.05.02.02, vt.) begin with "abreotan" in Old English, a language foreign to us; fifty-six words later we recognize "astroy" (c. 1200-1340), and as the list segues into modern English, categories ramify: one may "annihilate/blot out of existence," or one may merely "bring to ruin/put an end to" or mercifully "cut short/check." Drifting laterally, we notice that entry 01.05.02.02.01 continues the theme with "breaking/cracking," 01.05.02.02.02 gives us "cutting," and subheaded under "cutting" are "tearing," "damaging," "rubbing," "pressing/squeezing," etc. An abrupt transition from category 01.05.02. to 01.05.03 brings us to "causation," a ponderous Aristotelian category whose list of synonyms is virtually anesthetic.
Incidentally, the HTOED did escape destruction once–by fire, in 1978. While its building lay in ruins, ashen lexicographers were miraculously able to retrieve their handwritten slips from the drawers of metal filing cabinets, intact. Puzzling over the logic of leaping from "destruction" to "causation," I happened to flip back to the beginning of category 01.05.02 and realized my error. I hadn’t noticed that "destruction" wasn’t its own major category; it was, instead, a subcategory of "creation." Oh, OK, I thought: "causation" follows "creation." Makes sense. 01.05.04 is "occurrence," establishing a smooth line from the transcendent to the quotidian. But how puny "destruction" now seemed–it doesn’t even merit its own entry. Destruction is totally dependent on creation.
Tracing the logical flow of categories backward and forward, one may forget the initial reason for consulting the HTOED altogether. (Why did I land on "destruction" in the first place?) Finally, one extricates oneself, but not without making a mental note of odd and interesting facts, such as that in the sixteenth century the practice of cutting out pages from a book was to geld–as in desexing horses. The metaphors alone could distract a poet for hours. W.H. Auden wrote that for a "desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways." The same goes for its cousin, the Historical Thesaurus.