How (and why) to use TOE


1. What is a thesaurus?

In a thesaurus, words are arranged according to their meanings rather than alphabetically as in a dictionary. If you look up a word such as ‘sword’ or ‘sea’ in the Thesaurus of Old English (TOE), you will find groups of words representing these concepts in OE. The words in each group mean approximately the same thing, that is they are synonyms. After each group, you will often find smaller sections containing words of more specific meaning. Together these groups of synonyms and partial synonyms form larger groups, such as Weapons, and then Warfare, in the case of swords. Large groupings like Warfare are known as semantic fields and form the overall structure of the thesaurus. They are also the basis of the units in this project.

2. What can we learn from a thesaurus?

In the first place, TOE tells us how many words were available to speakers of Old English to express a particular idea. This may not seem very exciting in itself, but there is often a correlation between a large number of words for a concept and the importance of that concept in a society. Such concepts will be heavily lexicalised: there will be synonyms for the main concept and words for more specific ideas associated with it. If you browse through the TOE section on Animals, for example, you will see relatively large and detailed sections for animals which were important in Anglo-Saxon life, such as cattle, sheep and horses, and smaller sections on wild animals, including some, like bears and wolves, which are no longer found wild in Britain. Similarly, if you browse through Food or Clothing, you will get some idea of what the Anglo-Saxons ate and wore; examining a more abstract field such as Death or Time will reveal how people conceptualised these ideas. Browsing will also show you what is not there. For example, there is a short section on Exotic Animals, such as camels, elephants and lions, which educated Anglo-Saxons might come across in translations but which did not occur naturally in Britain. The list is tiny compared with the list which any speaker of Modern English might produce.

Looking at words in a thesaurus structure thus gives us an insight into the nature and preoccupations of a society. The exercises in this project are designed to help you to develop this sort of insight into the Anglo-Saxon worldview. The sections are ordered in what is called a folk taxonomy, which reflects and enables us to explore the everyday knowledge of the time. ‘Exotic Animals’, for example, would not occur as a heading in a modern scientific classification of animals, but the contexts suggest that Anglo-Saxons made a major distinction between familiar and unfamiliar creatures. For our purposes, this kind of taxonomy takes precedence over one based on modern knowledge, where we might expect a class of Felines linking familiar cats with unfamiliar lions and tigers. Occasionally, however, for reasons of clarity, we have introduced a superordinate or classifying term, such as Rodent or Insect, which appears not to have existed in Old English.

Folk taxonomies still persist in everyday usage. Speakers of Modern English often refer to tomatoes as vegetables or spiders as insects, even though intellectually we know that they belong elsewhere in a scientific taxonomy.

3. Individual words

Examining the vocabulary of a historical language such as OE presents particular problems. All of our evidence comes from written sources, in this case hand-written manuscripts. Many such sources have been lost over the years, and with them we have undoubtedly lost some of the OE vocabulary, although even nowadays previously unknown words may turn up, perhaps when an old manuscript has been used in the binding of a later book. We also have to take account of the fact that producing manuscripts was a costly business in a society where materials were expensive and few people were literate. Important things like religious teachings or history or poetry were written down, but we have far less writing representing everyday life. We therefore cannot claim to have a complete record of Anglo-Saxon life, even when we add in evidence from other disciplines such as Art or Archaeology or Place-Name Studies. However, we can get some idea of what it must have been like to live in Anglo-Saxon England.

3.1 Semantic change

Many OE words have survived into Mod. E. with only minor changes of sound or spelling (see Unit 3). Where these form patterns, they are easily recognised, as in
stān > stone, hām > home; hūs > house, mūs > mouse, > cow;
fōda > food, mōna > moon, sōna > soon.

Other words have changed their meanings in various ways. This is known as semantic change. For example, OE cearful ‘sorrowful’ survives in Mod. E. as careful, with the first element now referring to caution rather than sorrow: the phrase ‘full of care’ still preserves the meaning of the OE term. The OE verb sellan ‘to give’ survives as the verb ‘to sell’, i.e. ‘to give in exchange for money’. Some words retain their OE meaning only in specialised contexts or fossilised phrases. For instance, OE cwic ‘alive’ survives as Mod. E. quick, but retains the OE meaning in the phrase ‘the quick and the dead’ and with reference to the ‘quick’ of a nail.

One of the commonest types of semantic change is for a word to narrow in meaning. Mod. E. queen descends from OE cwēn. However, whereas OE cwēn could mean ‘queen’, it also had a more general sense ‘woman’. Only the narrower sense of ‘queen’ has survived, except in some dialects, e.g. North East Scots quine ‘a girl’. Another general OE term for ‘woman’ was wīf, but the Mod. E. reflex ‘wife’ retains only the narrower sense ‘married woman’. OE stōl survives as Mod. E. ‘stool’, but a broader sense encompassing a range of seats is reflected in its use as the second element of the compound cynestōl ‘throne’ (although a glance at the TOE Furniture section will show that a rather limited range of seating was available to most people).

Conversely, some words broaden or widen in meaning. OE hāligdæg (hālig ‘holy’ + dæg ‘day’) ‘saint’s day’ has become Mod. E. ‘holiday’, broadening to include non-religious vacations. Similarly, OE sōna ‘immediately’ survives as Mod. E. ‘soon’, with a wider time range.

Also common is pejoration or deterioration, where a word acquires a sense of disapproval. Examples include uncūþ ‘unknown’, whose Mod. E. reflex ‘uncouth’ implies uncultured behaviour, and OE cræftig ‘skilful’, whose Mod. E. reflex ‘crafty’ has connotations of deceit. (The earlier sense survives in the compound ‘craftsman’.) Pejoration often accompanies narrowing, as in OE stenc ‘smell, fragrance’ narrowing to Mod. E. ‘stench’, an unpleasant smell.

The opposite of pejoration is amelioration or elevation. This is where a term loses an original negative sense, as with OE grennian ‘to bare one’s teeth in pain or anger’, which survives as the neutral Mod. E. term ‘grin’.

3.2 Metaphor

Words commonly extend their meanings through the use of metaphor. In OE, many poetic compounds, formed from two other words, as in gūþ + wine and hilde + lēoma, both meaning ‘sword’ are of this type (see also Unit 4, section 2). The Wildcard Search in TOE enables us to look up the elements of these compounds separately. In these examples, the second elements are both metaphorical: battle + friend and battle + light. The fact that all the synonyms for ‘sword’ are collected together in TOE means that we can also investigate whether any other metaphors were used to describe this object.

We can also use TOE to track down recurrent metaphors. If you enter hāt ‘hot’ in the OE Word Search the results will show that it has several meanings in addition to literal ‘hot’. Its metaphorical meanings include ‘strong feeling’ and ‘anger’, i.e. in OE, just as in Mod. E., one could feel ‘hot’ with passion or rage. Much of our capacity for expressing abstract ideas is built on metaphor, and many of these metaphors are very ancient. Fields such as Emotions or Mental Faculties are fruitful territory for this kind of investigation.


For the history of individual words which continued in use after the OE period, the key resource is the Oxford English Dictionary, available either in paper or online if you have an institutional or individual subscription.

A new dictionary of Old English is in progress at the University of Toronto.

For quick checks, the easiest paper dictionary to consult is:
J. R. Clark Hall, with a supplement by Herbert D. Meritt, A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 4th edn. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960.
A pdf version of the second edition is available at:

A modern thesaurus, such as Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, can be used to examine the vocabulary of Modern English.

Metaphor in Old English can be explored through the Metaphor Map of Old English at:

Further reading

Aitchison, Jean. 2012. Words in the mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon. 4th edn. Oxford: Wiley.
          (for general information about categorisation)
Kay, Christian. 2005. ‘A Thesaurus of Old English Online’. Old English Newsletter 38:3, 36-40.
         Also available online at
Kay, Christian. 2015. ‘Words and Thesauri’. The Oxford Handbook of The Word, ed. John Taylor. Oxford: OUP, 53-67.
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
          (for an introduction to the study of metaphors)
Roberts, Jane and Christian Kay with Lynne Grundy. 2000. A Thesaurus of Old English (TOE). London: King’s
          College London Medieval Studies XI, 1995, 2 vols. Second impression, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.
          (See the introduction for more information about the making of TOE.)

For studies of particular words

Hough, Carole. 2004. ‘New Light on the Verb “understand”’. New Perspectives on English Historical Linguistics:
          Selected Papers from 12 ICEHL, Glasgow, 21–26 August 2002 Vol. 2: Lexis and Transmission
, eds
          Christian J. Kay, Carole Hough and Irené Wotherspoon. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 139–147.
Kay, C. J. 1994. ‘A Lexical View of Two Societies: a Comparison of The Scots Thesaurus and A Thesaurus
          of Old English’. Studies in Scots and Gaelic
, ed. A. Fenton. Edinburgh: Canongate Academic, 41-47.
Kay, C. J. 1997. ‘Historical Semantics and Material Culture’. Experiencing Material Culture in the Western
, ed. Susan M. Pearce. Leicester: Leicester University Press. 49-64.
Kay, C. J. 2000. ‘Metaphors We Lived By: Pathways between Old and Modern English’. Essays on
          Anglo-Saxon and Related Themes in Memory of Dr Lynne Grundy
, eds J. Nelson & J. Roberts. London:
Kay, C.J. 2013. ‘Footprints From the Past: The Survival of Scots Kinship Terms’. Language in Scotland: Corpus-based Studies, ed. W. Anderson. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 145-165.
          King’s College London Medieval Studies, 273-285.
Roberts, Jane. 2000. ‘The Old English Vocabulary of Nobility’. Nobles and Nobility, ed. Anne Duggan.
          Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 69-84.