How can understanding our words help us understand the world? Tracing the “Loveseat” through the OED’s Historical thesaurus.
With 800,000 words and meanings, in 235,000 entry categories, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is the largest thesaurus in the world. It is the first comprehensive historical thesaurus ever produced for any language, and charts the semantic development of almost every word in English from Old English to the present day. It was conceived and compiled by the English Language Department of the University of Glasgow.
One particularly fascinating discovery is that the all words in the historical thesaurus can be traced back to one of three radicals: the External World, the Mind, and Society. These are broken down into successively narrower domains. The thesaurus eventually divides into more than 236,000 separate categories.
This particular diagram traces the semantic route of that most commonplace and romantic of chairs: the love seat.
This cosy seat - variously known as a settée, double-chair, marquise, British two-seater, courting bench, conversation chair (1793), confidante (1794), sociable (1811), causeuse (1844), tête-á-tête (1864), cosy (1876), or two-seater (1891) - would be filed accordingly:
The love seat > for two persons > sofa or couch > seat > furniture or fittings > a building > inhabited place > inhabiting or dwelling > society.