Online thesauruses can go even further in bringing the interconnectedness of the English lexicon to life on the screen. The Visual Thesaurus (for which I serve as executive producer) creates interactive displays of the relationships between words and between senses of words. Moving through this type of semantic visualization, the jumps can be unexpected, allowing for the emergence of a different kind of serendipity than the kind that a print reference normally provides. The entire inventory of senses for a given word, with accompanying synonyms for each sense, can blossom forth like a flower on the screen. Such a visual efflorescence inspired George L. Dillon, a professor of English at the University of Washington, to write, “If indeed it is the case that we access all of the senses of words for a very brief interval when processing natural language, what wonderful things must be swimming about in our minds!”
Another significant effort in contemporary thesaurus-making admirably straddles the print/digital divide. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary was conceived in 1965 at the University of Glasgow as a project that would index all the words in the OED, organizing them by their meanings and by their first known date of use. In 2009, at long last, HTOED was published in two massive volumes, the first providing a chronological listing of words in different conceptual classes and the second providing an index to find particular meanings of words in the book’s elaborate Roget-style hierarchy, from the abstract to the specific. While it is easy to get lost in its pages, HTOED clearly needed an online home to maximize its practicality for both casual and scholarly readers. Thus it was incorporated into the online OED in 2010, and there it truly thrives. Because the categories of words are presented chronologically, one can quickly see, for instance, how 149 terms for a “contemptible person” extend from “worm” and “wretch” in Old English to late-twentieth-century slang offerings like “scuzzbag” and “sleazeball.” For a writer, searching for just the right word can turn into an adventure in historical verisimilitude. A novelist or playwright seeking epithets for dialog set in the early seventeenth century can zero in on such terms as “viliaco” (1600), “snotty-nose” (1604), “sprat” (1605), “wormling” (1605), and “shag-rag” (1611).
What, then, should we expect a thesaurus to do for us? Simply allow us to replace one word with a near equivalent in a mechanical fashion? Such arid utilitarianism does little justice to the various ways that a thesaurus can shed light on language and encourage lexical explorations. A thesaurus, as we have seen, can mine rich usage data from textual corpora to paint a picture of how words are used in actual context. It can create new spatial metaphors for semantic connections. Or it can add a historical dimension to trace how words related to a given concept have ebbed and flowed over the centuries. These are but some of the directions that the twenty-first-century thesaurus is headed in, directions unforeseen by Roget in his time. Though we can be sure that he would have deplored the mindlessness of the word processor’s search-and-replace shortcuts, I feel equally confident that Roget would have appreciated the ways that new technologies can deepen our appreciation of the lexicon’s richness in all of its interwoven splendor.
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