The words historical thesaurus may send children running to the hills, for fear they’re likely to be bored to death by some fellow with a monocle. But they also describe the richest reference you’ve probably never heard of. In fact, only one historical thesaurus has ever been produced, in any language, and that’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s, the product of 44 years of toil.
And now there’s a new book designed to introduce the masses to a treasure the English professors have been hoarding for themselves since it was published in 2009.
In Words in Time and Place, author David Crystal starts by explaining what the thing is. A regular old thesaurus will let you look up a word and find words similar in meaning that people use today: a historical thesaurus will not only show you current words but every word anyone has ever used to express that idea in English, in the time of Einstein or Shakespeare or Anglo-Saxon poets. It will also tell you the oldest known use of each word, so you can learn, for example, that people have actually been using fly to mean excellent since 1896: as in, “Dash my wig, that is a fly-ass stagecoach!”
“How would Shakespeare have talked about love or the weather or whatever it happens to be?” Crystal tells TIME. “Suddenly you get a way into the mindset of the past that simply wasn’t possible before.” While that’s novel for everyone, it has practical applications, too, in places like the writers’ room on the set of Mad Men or Downton Abbey.
To celebrate his effort, we’ve put together a quiz using only words that Crystal touches on in his new book, selected out of the 800,000 in the reference. See if you can suss out what’s real and what’s not when it comes to centuries-old slang. (So you know just how old it is, we’ve marked each word with the first year it was recorded in the answers).
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