The brainchild of a Jewish professor 45 years ago reaches fruition this autumn with the publication of the world’s biggest thesaurus.
The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary contains almost every word that has ever existed in English, nearly 800,000 words in total, organised into more than 236,000 sub-categories.
The project was begun by Professor Michael Samuels at Glasgow University in 1964. “I was particularly interested in verbal obsolescence and why words are replaced,” he said this week. “I was not satisfied with the works available on the history of English vocabulary; they were very selective.
“I thought it would be a long project, but I was imagining 15 to 20 years. I had no idea it would take this long to complete, but my colleagues at the Oxford English Dictionary — on which we based our dictionary on — published a second edition and then supplements. We couldn’t anticipate that.”
For many years, the thesaurus was compiled on slips of paper, before computer use was widespread. The project nearly went up in flames in 1978 when a fire broke out at the university. Luckily the thesaurus was stored in fire-proof cabinets which withstood the blaze. Professor Samuels, 88, became professor of English language at Glasgow University in 1959. He grew up in London; his sister is actress Miriam Karlin.
The professor grew up in a traditional Jewish family, but is now an atheist. “My family were not meshuggah frum but we were brought up with all the observances,” he said. “My father was fairly strict. I’m afraid that’s one of the things which switched me off in later life.”
He is looking forward to a party in October to mark the publication of the thesaurus. “So many people have worked on it that there may be hundreds there.”
Origins of ‘Jewry’ — what the new dictionary says
The earliest word for “Jewish” listed in the Historical Thesaurus is the Old English “judeisc”, followed in around 1250 by “circumcis”. The word “Jew” entered the English language in 1275, followed 25 years later by “jewhead” — a decade after Edward 1 had expelled Jews from England in 1290. Jews may have been absent, but “Jewry” was coined as a collective noun in 1330, and “men of the circumcision” in 1382. Even though Jews were not formally allowed back to England until 1655, the word “Judaism” entered the language in 1494, closely followed by “jewship” in 1535, “jewishness” in 1549 and “jewism” in 1579.
In the 17th century, people spoke of “synagogists” and “sabbatisers” followed by the 18th century “smouse” and “smouch”. Not until 1816 did one hear the pejorative word “sheeny”, and “heeb” was not coined until 1932. “Liberal” Judaism was spoken of in 1823, with “reformed” not emerging until 1844 and “Orthodox” in use in 1853. The word “unjewish”, however, entered the language in 1822. English has described many things over the years as being in some way pertaining to Jews, including the language Jew Tongo, plants such as Jew bush, Jew plum, Jew’s apple, Jew’s mallow, Jew’s frankincense and Jew’s eye. There are also minerals — Jew’s lime, Jew’s slime, Jew’s pitch and Jew’s stone.