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Roll over Roget

Trouser styles through the ages

By Peter Jackson

When did a lavatory become a loo? And why were Victorian trousers "unmentionables"? The world's first historical thesaurus, which is to be published after more than 40 years of research, claims to have the answers.

Loved by writers, not to mention crossword cheats, Roget's Thesaurus has never been out of print since it was published in 1852 to "assist in literary composition".

The best known dictionary of its kind, which groups synonyms - words with similar meanings - has been a source of reference for more than 150 years.

But a new beast is emerging from Britain's vast ocean of words, a colossus to rival Roget.

World's first historical thesaurus
Contains almost every word in English from Old English to present day
Started in 1964 by Michael Samuels, then professor of English Language at University of Glasgow
Contains 800,000 meanings, organised into 236,000 categories and subcategories
Published in two volumes on 8 October 2009

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, published by Oxford University Press, is the culmination of 44 years of painstaking work by scholars at the University of Glasgow.

It not only groups words with similar meanings but does so in chronological order according to their history - with the oldest first and most recent last. According to its publisher, it's the largest thesaurus in the world and the first historical thesaurus in any language.

With 800,000 meanings, 600,000 words and more than 230,000 categories and sub categories, it's twice as big as Roget's version.

And if that doesn't have him turning in his grave, it also contains almost every word in English from Old English to the present day, or 2003 to be precise - the cut-off date for the new dictionary.

So what can we learn from a book like this? Part of the dictionary's appeal is its ability to show how words reflect the values of society at a given moment in history.

Words we commonly use today have evolved and sometimes changed unrecognisably. English language professor Christian Kay has become an authority on such lexicographical metamorphoses - having given much of her working life to compiling the new thesaurus.

An English language professor, Ms Kay, one of four co-editors of the publication, began work on it in the late 1960s - while she was in her 20s. With the help of this edited extract (below) from the new historical thesaurus, Ms Kay explains how an unremarkable word, such as "trousers" has evolved over almost 500 years.


trousers breeks 1552- · strosser 1598-1637 · strouse 1600-1620 · brogues 1615- a 1845 · trouses 1679-1820 · trousers 1681- · trouser 1702- ( rare ) · inexpressibles 1790- ( colloq. ) · indescribables 1794-1837 ( humorous slang ) ·etceteras 1794-1843 ( euphem. ) · kickseys/kicksies 1812-1851 ( slang ) · pair of trousers 1814- · ineffables 1823-1867 ( colloq. ) · unmentionables 1823- · pantaloons 1825- · indispensables a 1828- ( colloq. euphem. ) · unimaginables 1833 · innominables 1834/43 ( humorous euphem. ) · inexplicables 1836/7 · unwhisperables 1837-1863 ( slang ) · result 1839 · sit-down-upons 1840-1844 ( colloq. ) · pants 1840- · sit-upons 1841-1857 ( colloq. ) · unutterables 1843; 1860 ( slang Dict. ) · trews 1847- · sine qua nons 1850 · never-mention-ems 1856 · round-me-houses 1857 ( slang ) · round-the-houses 1858- ( slang ) · unprintables 1860 · stove-pipes 1863 · terminations 1863 · reach-me-downs 1877- · sit-in-'ems/sitinems 1886- ( slang ) · trousies 1886- · strides1889- ( slang ) · rounds 1893 ( slang ) · rammies 1919- ( Austral. &S. Afr. slang ) · longs 1928- ( colloq. )

breeks The earliest reference from 1552 marks the change in fashion from breeches, a garment tied below the knee and worn with tights. Still used in Scotland, it derives from the Old English "breeches". trouser The singular form of "trousers" comes from the Gallic word "trews", a close-fitting tartan garment formerly worn by Scottish and Irish highlanders and to this day by a Scottish regiment. The word "trouses" probably has the same derivation. unimaginables This 19th Century word, and others like "unwhisperables" and "never-mention-ems", reflect Victorian prudery. Back then, even trousers were considered risque, which is why there were so many synonyms. People didn't want to confront the brutal idea, so found jocular alternatives. In the same way the word death is avoided with phrases like "pass away" and "pushing up daisies". stove-pipes A 19th Century reference hijacked in the 1950s by the Teddy Boys along with drainpipes. The tight trousers became synonymous with youthful rebellion, a statement of difference from the standard post-war suits. rammies This abbreviation of Victorian cockney rhyming slang "round-me-houses" travelled with British settlers to Australia and South Africa.

Finally, how does Ms Kay feel, witnessing her work, after 40 years, make it into print?

"It's a big moment for me," she says. "In some ways I'm glad to feel it's all over, one of my main occupations has been fundraising which has been hard to keep going. There will be a lot of satisfaction to see it in on the page."

Below is a selection of your comments.

What a superb resource. I'm astonished to learn that "breeks" is the very first recorded version of what we now call trousers - believe it or not, "breeks" is still regularly used in Belfast in this context, almost 500 years after it made its debut!
Tony Black, Belfast

I am sitting here in my kegs laughing my unmentionables off at the very thought that the prudish Victorians were so easily embarrassed. (What did they do for us?)
Doug Mummery, County Durham

In this part of SE Lancs at least, trousers are also called "Kecks" - I wonder if that's from somewhere like the Scottish "Breeks"?
Steve Taylor, Heywood UK

What about the word "slacks" to represent trousers? Was that one of the words edited out?
Emma, Pontypridd

I would love to own a copy of this, but a quick search reveals that it's not really priced for the average person. Who can afford to spend over GBP150 on a thesaurus??
Alys, Canada

I grew up in the Lake District where, in common with some other parts of the north, the term for trousers was "kecks"; presumably this is related to "kickseys/kicksies 1812-1851 ( slang )". Underpants were underkecks. I'd imagine the entry on them (whether male or female versions!) includes even more euphemisms like "unmentionables".
David V Barrett, London

'Trews' is not a 'Gallic' (sic) word, nor is any other. It is derived from the (Scottish) Gaelic (note spelling) triubhas (with the plural triubhsar giving us the English word trouser). Although in Scotland 'Gaelic' is pronounced roughly as 'Gallic', this latter word when used in English refers to all things French (i.e. related to the ancient Gauls). So for example, we sometimes in English refer to a 'Gallic shrug' to describe a nonchalant Frenchman. On the other hand, it is probably fair to say that there is not a single word derived from 'Gallic' in the English language, with Gaulish (the correct adjective when referring to the ancient Celtic language) words being extremely rare even in French. On the other hand, Gaelic has given us quite a few loanwords, not least whisky (from uisge-bheatha 'the water of life') and the expression 'smashing' (from 's math sin 'that's good').
Jim, Edinburgh, Scotland

Completely fascinating. I've always wondered how many words have evolved and this seems to be a perfect quick reference - although the effort into its production must have been quite something. A colleague recalls calling his trousers "breeks" in Scotland in the 1950s, I guess some things never change.
Carl Caputo, West Ruislip

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