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Among the many wonders of the Internet, there is the huge abundance of dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses, lexicons, and such-like beautiful things.

I’ve always loved dictionaries of all sorts, old and new, and own shelves of them, and since a young age I’ve been known to ask Saint Lucia for the occasional dictionary as a gift… Apart from the obvious use, I just love to get lost among those columns of words, to make discoveries, to go on treasure hunts, to chase the elusive nuance of a meaning…

I’m old enough to have grown up (and then some) playing these games on paper alone – and it was wonderful; then the Internet came, with the possibility to access… well, more or less anything. With some patience and lateral thinking, there isn’t much that can’t be found online, word-wise… And when you can’t,  it’s usually an interesting fact in itself.

And out of all this wealth, my very favourite e-place must be The Historical Thesaurus of English, a huge ongoing project of the University of Glasgow.

No, really – it’s Aladdin’s cave. I’ve already written about it, so I won’t go into much detail now. Let’s just say that, at its easiest, the Histhesaurus* will let you search for a word and show you both what that word has meant through the century, and how each particular meaning has been expressed historically. Also, when a word came into use and slipped out of it, with an eye to where it was used, and whether it was poetical, or slang, or…

And this is just the surface, your everyday remedy for that dread horror – the Glaring Linguistic Anachronism. But there is so much more to the Histhesaurus…! There is, for instance, the way you can see how many – or how few – words a given era in history had for a given concept, and just what kind of words. This is how you discover that Old English had oodles of words for things like “sparkling”, “mud” or “sadness”, and a very small handful for , say, “mystery”… And it’s also how you observe, again and again, that the 17th Century delights in colourful, literary, abstruse, often Latinate polisyllables… And don’t get me wrong: I love Elizabethan English to distraction – its colour, its texture, the challenge of conveying some of it in contemporary English – but one day I’ll have to write something that is set in the 17th Century, just for the joy of the language.

Of course, I use the Histhesaurus with a novelist’s mind – which is likely not what it was meant for, or at least not all of it. Still, one of its more appealing features is how it is geared to be both a sophisticated scientific tool for linguistics, and an easily accessible, fascinating well of knowledge for the occasionally curious.

It has, for instance, a sophisticated Search interface, that will let you fine-tune your search to near-extreme detail; or you can just go for a quick search, and see the whole history of a word…

I confess I almost always do the quick search, for the sake of the whole dazzling array of colour and meaning. One can learn so much about any set of human beings by their words: their ideas, their thought-process, their fears and preferences, their mindset, their humour, their main fields of interest, what they will or will not say, what they worship, like, value, despise…

All else apart, the Histhesaurus is full of stories, glimmers and wonders – and, as I said, the 17th Century awaits me in some not-too-far future.


* My own nickname. Yes – I gave a nickname to an online thesaurus. This is a love story that you are reading.