Back in October, the Oxford University Press released a 4,448-page two-volume super reference book: the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s not only the biggest thesaurus, racking up more than 920,000 entries, but it’s also the first historical thesaurus. Poets & Writers has the fascinating history behind the project, which almost went up in flames:
Begun in 1965 under the auspices of the University of Glasgow, the project has passed through several technological incarnations—moving from paper slips to microfilm to computer files—and survived the death of founders and dodgy financial backing. Christian Kay, one of the work’s four coeditors, was twenty-seven when she joined the endeavor as a research assistant. She’s now a sixty-nine-year-old professor.
Work in the early years progressed slowly, with researchers combing the twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary and transcribing lists of synonyms on 6 x 4–inch cards. In 1978, things nearly went up in smoke when the building housing the sole copy of the work-in-progress caught fire. The nineteenth-century structure was burned to a shell, but the thesaurus—safely ensconced in metal cabinets—survived the blaze.“We were always very good about putting things away at night,” Kay told the Daily Mail, “and the Victorian doorsstood up well, although you can still see singe marks on some of the documents.”
Source: Poets and Writers