Over forty years is a long time to work on a single task. Yet that has been the lot of the four editors of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. The massive 3,952 page double volume will be released this month, the culmination of the editors’ entire careers. In our world of fast, it is a timely reminder that, sometimes, good things need time. This new thesaurus has been pulled together almost entirely by hand. Words from past and present editions of the full dictionary were studiously transcribed onto slips of paper, then sorted, stacked and re-sorted into categories, sub-categories and sub-sub-categories, and finally put into historical context. Nearly a million words were sorted this way into quarter of a million categories. And, as I said, it took over 40 years.
It sounds like the ultimate labour of love (or ‘druery’ (circa 1255) or ‘paramour’ (c. 1350) or ‘passion’ (c. 1588)).
The thesaurus has stumbled over numerous funding obstructions along its journey. It has been kept going by grants and gritty determination, neither of which, luckily for the project, would have been expecting financial recompense. Then, almost ready in 1980, it was delayed for what ended up being a further 29 years when it was decided it wasn’t yet complete.
I wonder whether such a project - open-ended and financially flimsy - would have a chance of getting up today?
There is an episode of the brilliant American police drama, The Wire, in which one of the younger detectives complains at having to spend hours watching a public telephone, in wait for one of their targets. He is chastised by one of the old hands with words along the lines of “what did you think you would be doing when you signed up to be a detective?”
This conversation nicely captured the division between a modern culture of instant gratification and its older counterpart of ‘good things come to those who wait’.
In the fast-paced 21st century, universities are no longer expected to do long term research but instead have to sell instant, industry-ready solutions if they want to remain funded. It’s a time when the instant drama of reality television - unscripted, unrehearsed and undirected - is the favoured child of TV execs. And it’s a time when long term problems with long term solutions (climate change, for instance) are allowed to fester while instant problems offering instant solutions (the GFC, for instance) are provided with the best economic medicine money can buy.
In short, if it can’t be rushed, it won’t be ratified.
On that evidence, the idea of the Oxford thesaurus getting a start in 2009 would seem fanciful, though it would be nice to think I’m wrong.
I love living in a fast-paced world where a bottomless cup of instant information resides inside my iPhone, and where I can sprinkle my own words all over the globe in seconds. But it doesn’t follow that because ‘quick is good’ that ‘quick is the only way’. We need to reserve a place in our lives to snudge (c.1633) up to those good things that take time.