The Historical Thesaurus began in 1964 when Professor Michael Samuels announced in an address to the Philological Society that he and his colleagues in the English Language Department of the University of Glasgow had embarked on the task of producing a comprehensive study of the English vocabulary, the first ever notional classification on historical principles of any language. Professor Samuels was succeeded as Director of the project by Professor Christian Kay, who saw the project through to the successful completion of its first edition in 2009. The third director is Professor Marc Alexander, who oversees the in-progress second edition of the Thesaurus.

The completed work contains nearly 800,000 words, organised into more than 236,000 meanings. Each word is accompanied by the dates it was known to be in use, and so each category in the Thesaurus gives users a survey of all the words which could used to represent that meaning at any point in the last thousand years. It has been described by Lord Randolph Quirk as ‘perhaps the single most significant tool ever devised for investigating semantic, social, and intellectual history’ and the Times has said ‘as English is the richest language, so this mighty publication is its treasury’.

Over two hundred researchers at Glasgow have worked on the Thesaurus, which has funded postgraduate scholarships and offered work to early career scholars across its development. In 2017 the University was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education in recognition of sustaining and supporting the Thesaurus for over fifty years, and for creating “a unique resource for scholarship, education and creativity”.