Resource for historical writers: The Historical Thesaurus of English

November 5th, 2020 by Jane Turner

How did I come across this resource for historical writers?

This week I’ve been attending the annual conference for the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (of which I’m a member). It was an amazing online event, with people from all over the world participating, and my brain is buzzing from all the ideas I’ve picked up!

Back to the point of this post…

A truly fabulous resource for historical writers, budding etymologists and word geeks! 

One of the speakers at CIEP2020 was Fraser Dallachy, who is a Lecturer in English Language & Linguistics at the University of Glasgow, and Deputy Director of the Historical Thesaurus of English.

Mr Dallachy told us about The Historical Thesaurus of English, it’s history, the process and took we delegates through how to use the site.

I tell you, all of us were absolutely captivated with the amazing resource that the University of Glasgow team have created!

Background of this brilliant writer’s resource

In 1964, Prof Michael Samuels, then Professor of English Language at the University of Glasgow, announced that his department was going to produce a historical thesaurus of English.

As The Guardian wrote:

[Samuels] had become interested in how and why vocabulary changes, and felt that this topic could be investigated fully only if words were seen in the context of other words of similar meaning.

One of his favourite examples was the word silly, which started life in Anglo-Saxon times meaning happy or blessed, and gradually deteriorated in meaning from innocent, harmless, weak and rustic to our modern meaning of foolish.


Those who have seen the recent Amazon film, The Professor and the Madman, will have some understanding of what kind of process this involved. (And those who haven’t seen the film, you should. It’s really quite good!)

Each word was written on a slip of paper, categorised, painstakingly researched, then filed with synonyms.

Can you imagine that? Every single word to EVER appear in the English language. Thousands upon thousands of slips of paper, one for each word. Hundreds of thousands. How many rooms would those slips of paper fill?

Anyway, the team seriously underestimated just how long the project would take.

The team originally intended to publish and release their work in the 1980’s – which in itself would make it a 20 year project. Instead, the project took FORTY FIVE YEARS.

The Historical Thesaurus was completed and published in 2009.

Prof Samuels died in November 2010.

What use is The Historical Thesaurus to me as an author?

Well, I’m glad you asked!

The Historical Thesaurus is fully searchable.

Say you’re writing a historical novel. Say it’s set in the 1400s, and your main character is getting dressed for the day.

I can tell you that, whatever you might wish, he’s not putting on ‘pants’. Or ‘trousers’. And, perhaps unexpectedly, not even ‘hose’.

The Historical Thesaurus tells us that the word ‘pants’ wasn’t used until the 1830s.

So, what was he putting on?

Start browsing The Historical Thesaurus for Clothing, and click through the options to Clothing for the legs and lower body. The words will appear in chronological order.

By scrolling down quite a way (so many words for legwear!), you’ll see that men started wearing ‘breech’, then ‘breeches’, ‘breek’, then ‘hosen’ in the 1400s.

Your main character in your 1400s novel will probably be putting on his breeches (depending on when exactly in the century he is).

Coming soon?

Mr Dallachy also told us about an exciting future project – which he called a time traveller’s dictionary. This sounds so brilliant!

He wants to work on making The Historical Thesaurus of English searchable by year.

So, if your novel’s set in 1712, you would be able to put 1712 into this time traveller’s dictionary and up will come all the words used at that time.

I was absolutely stunned.

How brilliant and indispensable a resource would that be?!

Just imagine, taking the TARDIS to the best dictionary in the world!


A note from me, a fan of The Historical Thesaurus

I originally drafted this post with screenshots and some lovely graphs.

But I’ve removed the graphics from this post, thereby respecting the Terms of Use of the Historical Thesaurus:

This site makes available parts of that data to you solely for non-commercial research purposes (such as private reference, personal research, background research for authors, and the provision of teaching materials). It is, however, not an open dataset; beyond limited extracts of up to a few hundred words which are necessary for your research or teaching, you may not reproduce, copy or transmit any part of the data on this site without an explicit licence from the University of Glasgow.)


As I don’t have an explicit licence, though I do have enormous respect for the project team and wanted to post this blog to let all you fine historical writers know about this resource, I am not posting any graphics or screenshots from The Historical Thesaurus of English. My use of specific terms on the site is also limited as much as I can.

Prof Samuels and his team spent 45 years and countless research hours building it. I can respect their wishes.

Use it the way it was intended.

Slide them some funding if you can afford it. Maybe offer a scholarship or research prize.

But please, PLEASE, don’t disrespect what these incredible researchers have produced.

Thank you, readers!

And, if you’ve got your own book ready for an edit, get in touch for a free sample edit!

Leave a Reply

Find me here

Sign up for my mailing list!


Recent Posts

Looking for something specific?

Did you see everything?


Find this useful? Spread the word :)